Surveillance is both a phylum and an order of sound. It is both a context within which sound occurs, and a subset of the way sound functions. We listen intently, and we overhear; we overhear on purpose, and by chance. Our ears are focused by what we want to hear, and by what, as the pristine familiar phrase so succinctly summarizes, catches our ear.
There is very little overt, carefully detailed attention to sound in Our Kind of Traitor, the 2010 thriller by master spy novelist John le Carré — despite the fact that throughout the book, secrets are documented on little tape recorders, and phones are tapped, and everyone with the slightest bit of skin in the game is paying fierce attention at all moments, deciphering words and the tonality in which they are couched. With the exception of a few key moments, that action goes unexamined. However, when le Carré does choose to apply his scalpel of a pen to discerning the act of listening with the same consideration he applies to manners, posture, class, the intersection of international and personal politics, and all things sartorial, he of course excels. Here are five such instances from Our Kind of Traitor:
1. In the Wind:
He could hear the three winds battling round Dima’s glistening bald head. He could see the treetops above him shaking. He could hear the crashes of leaves and a gurgle of water, and he knew it was the same tropical rain that had drenched him in the forests of Colombia. Had Dima made his recording in a single session or in several? Did he have to brace himself with shots of vodka between sessions in order to overcome his vory inhibitions?
The “he” here is a second-tier spy — nth tier in the circles of hellish bureaucracy that define the modern intelligence service, but second in the small crew that make up the book’s team. The spy’s name is Luke. Here he is listening to a tape recording by a would-be defector, a Russian money launderer by name of Dima. We witness Luke’s craft and shortcomings, his perceptive skills and his self-pity, working hand in hand as he listens to, and projects his own experience onto, a recording Dima has made. The recording is Dima’s entreaty to the British spy service. In a way that a written document might not, the sound both provides additional detail about Dima’s situation and transports Luke, momentarily, into his own troubled past. (“Vory” is the term for a Russian crime syndicate of fierce loyalty.)
2. For Ears Only:
“Has Hector been listening to us?”
“I expect so.”
“Sometimes it’s better just to listen. Like a radio play.”
The Hector mentioned here is the book’s spymaster. The interlocutors in the bit of dialog are an inquisitive source and the mid-level spy Luke, who is under Hector’s command. Luke reinforces the unique power of sound when taken on its own, devoid of other sensorial data. He also posits a connection between the story being told by le Carré and the concept of the characters experiencing their own lives as if in a scripted drama, touching on matters of fate, and of Luke’s emerging notion of having less control over his own than he would like. (Elsewhere in the book we learn that Luke fails to enjoy the Harry Potter books — an anhedonia that reinforces his separation from his young son. There’s enough fantasy, we’re told, already in his life. There’s something especially British about John le Carré describing a British spy’s inability to appreciate Harry Potter.)
3. For Whom the Bell Tolls:
Perry pressed the bell and at first they heard nothing. The stillness struck Gail as unnatural so she pressed it herself. Perhaps it didn’t work. She gave one long ring then several short ones to hurry everyone up. And it worked after all, because impatient young feet were approaching, bolts were being shot and a lock was turned, and one of Dima’s flaxen-haired sons appeared.
The person who does the listening in this moment is also the one with the least agency of the assembled protagonists. Gail is the girlfriend to Perry. Perry is the book’s initial hero, except in the moments when it lets Luke, Hector, and Gail be the heroes of their own threads of the narrative. Perry and Gail are caught up in Dima’s negotiations with British intelligence. Here, they have gone to collect the family of Dima. Gail’s legal experience often comes into play when she pitches her voice one way or listens to someone else’s. Here her listening skills are brought to bear on her not uninformed paranoia.
4. Go to the Tape:
Then quite suddenly — it was in the evening of the same day — the weather changed, and Hector’s voice rose a notch. Luke’s illicit recorded played the moment back to him.
Luke again here, now in seclusion with Perry, Gail, and Dima’s brood. He has been taping audio late in the book, both his own notes about goings-on, and phone calls with his boss, Hector, who is calling in with updates regarding how he is navigating the halls of power in Dima’s interest. Here, for the first time, Luke revisits a tape, to confirm a suspicion he noticed in the conversation he just had only moments prior. The instance ratchets up Luke’s anxiety, and projects the isolation they all are experiencing.
5. Left in the Cold:
And either there was someone inside to close the door on them or Luke did it for himself: an abrupt sigh of hinges, a double clunk of metal as the door was made fast from inside, and the black hole in the plane’s fuselage disappeared.
That fifth and final sonic moment occurs pages before the book ends. It’s a fateful moment. The book has returned to the point of view with which it originated, the novitiate Perry — Perry, who has learned much as the book has unfolded, including how to listen, and what to listen for. And then it’s a full stop. What happens next is simply, to use one of le Carré’s favored terms, a void. It’s a void for the reader to fill in. The answer may be left to how well the reader has been listening.