Backstory Entry Hatches in John Le Carré’s The Tailor of Panama: A Partial Taxonomy

I can see why this complex and richly entertaining novel isn’t as popular on Goodreads as many of Le Carré’s other books. The propulsive urgency of the story sags in places, which is the reason that I’m giving it a positive but slightly qualified recommendation. It was bound to disappoint Le Carré’s spy thriller audience, because it doesn’t do what books in that genre are supposed to. It’s not even a spy thriller, really, though it is a novel about spying. 

You could say that it belongs to a very small sub-genre, along with Our Man in Havana: the Bitingly Satirical Spy Caper. And while The Tailor of Panama doesn’t captivate the reader with the same charmingly effervescent blend of suspense and comedy as Our Man in Havana, the satire hits home just as effectively as it does in Greene’s book. In fact this novel elaborates and updates Greene’s theme, pushing it to a logical conclusion that remains all too resonant in today’s world of intelligence-targeted official violence.  

Whatever you think of its themes, I think we can all agree that Le Carré is a remarkably accomplished writer with a particular strength in the art of creating interesting, impossible-to-forget characters. In this book the imaginatively prodigious tailor himself, Harry Pendel, stands out, as does the resourceful and despicable spy manager, Andrew Osnard. 

But let’s get to the writerly question at the center of this post: What specific techniques does Le Carré use to create such interesting characters? 

There are so many aspects of character creation one could talk about, but one of the things that struck me most about this book is the frequent and skillful use that Le Carré makes of backstory, and in particular of that difficult-to-pull-off subset of backstory, flashback, to endow his characters with extra interest and complexity. Each of the main characters has an emotionally charged history that constantly intrudes on the present moment, clueing the reader in about important motivations and conflicts featured within what we might call the “frontstory.” 

I’ve written about backstory and flashback before. As anyone who writes fiction knows, there’s an ongoing debate about the merits of backstory, and in fact there are prominent writers who espouse a policy of minimizing or doing away with it entirely. But the more I think and read, the more strongly I come down on the side of backstory as a richly useful tool in the task of creating complex, fascinating, novel-worthy characters. Le Carré is a great teacher in this regard. In particular, I was interested to observe some of the ways he handles the difficult transitions between frontstory, backstory, and full-fledged flashback. 

So, without further ado, here’s an incomplete taxonomy what we might call Le Carré’s “backstory entry hatches.”

Abrupt Flash. An image from the past that comes to the protagonist suddenly, often in the middle of a dialogue-rich scene:

Mickie scarecrow thin, face lopsided from a beating, eyes still fresh from hell. Mickie in frayed orange rags, no bespoke tailor available. Wet red blisters round his ankles, more around his wrists.

Marta in her ripped white shirt and jeans lying like uncollected refuse in the gutter while three members of Noriega’s Dignity Battalions, known affectionately as the Dingbats, take turns to win her heart and mind with the aid of a bloodied baseball bat, starting with her face.

But the sequence of these events remained disordered in Fran’s mind because all she could concentrate on while they were unfolding was her very first gymkhana, when her pony, which like every other pony in the world was called Misty, took the first fence perfectly, then bolted down the main road to Shrewsbury . . . 

Triggered Narrative Rewind. A memory triggered by a sensory experience in the frontstory, and entered gradually rather than abruptly by narration that begins in the frontstory and slides backwards: 

Then he would stare into the peaceful city, and very soon the flares and the red and green tracer and the hoarse tattoo of machine guns and the jackhammer rattle of cannons would start to create their own mad daytime in the theatre of his memory, just as they had on that December night in 1989 when the hills blinked and shuddered and the huge Spectre gunships flew in unopposed from the sea to punish the mostly wooden slums of el Chorillo . . . 

Sweat pouring off him, heavy as the rain. Running water gurgling under his feet. Pendel floating, upriver or down. The entire past that he has buried six feet deep, crashing in upon him . . . starting with the miracle of his birth as related to him in prison by his Uncle Benny and ending with the Day of Absolutely No Atonement thirteen years ago when he invented himself to Louisa on the immaculate all-American lawn in the officially abolished Canal Zone with the Stars and Stripes flapping up in the smoke of her daddy’s barbecue and the band playing hope-and-glory and the black men watching through the wire. 

Untriggered Narrative Rewind. You might call this the traditional method, and it might feel a little clunky were it not achieved with Le Carré’s usual panache:

And it was somewhere around this point, most likely, that Stormont, partly out of boredom and partly in self-defence, drifted off into a troubled review of his life until now:
            Stormont, Nigel, born too long ago, educated not very well at Shrewsbury and Jesus, Oxford. Second in History like everybody else, divorced like everybody else: except that my little escapade happened to make the Sunday newspapers.

How she had got here was a mystery to her, though it was a mystery now ten weeks old. “Only two ways to play this situation, girl,” Osnard had explained to her with the assurance he brought to everything, over lavish helpings of barbecued chicken and cold beer beside the pool of the El Panamá. 

Hallucinated Memory. And I end with my favorite. A full-on hallucination in the frontstory delivers us straight to the backstory:

“Harry.” It is an hour later, but Pendel is too estranged to go home, so he is back in his cutting room with his dinner jacket and Bach. “Harry.” The voice that is addressing him is Louisa’s from the first time they went to bed together, not just fingers and tongues and listening for her parents’ car coming back from the movie, but completely naked in Harry’s bed in his grotty attic flat in Calidonia, where he’s tailoring at night after selling ready-mades all day for a clever Syrian haberdasher called Alto.

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