In this enthralling and thought-provoking novel of Middle Eastern intrigue, Charlie, a brilliant and beautiful young actress, is lured into ‘the theatre of the real’ by an Israeli intelligence officer. Forced to play her ultimate role, she is plunged into a deceptive and delicate trap set to ensnare an elusive Palestinian terrorist.
In his review of the book, William Buckley wrote:
“The Little Drummer Girl is about spies as Madame Bovary is about adultery or Crime and Punishment about crime.”
(He’s quoted at the book’s Wikipedia page.)
The book—and the very interesting film by George Roy Hill—really tell two stories.
There’s the story of the strange young woman, Charlie.
And there’s the story of Charlie falling in love with the Israeli spy.
Even though her affair with the Israeli spy is pivotal to the business of her involvement in espionage, the “love story” plot—which is carried over both in the book and the movie as a larger story than the espionage plot—seems so trivial and so fake compared to the espionage plot that I wouldn’t be too surprised to learn that both the novel and screenplay included the “romance” element (as opposed to the straightforward honey-trap element) to make the story more commercial and provide something that, I guess, seems like a happy ending.
When I re-read the book or re-watch the film I strip away the very last bit, the actual ending, and always end it for myself at the climax of the espionage story, when Charlie is confronted by the terrorist, when he doesn’t kill her but uses what he knows will be the last few seconds of his life to simply ask her why she did what she did.
He just wanted to understand something that was inexplicable.
I can’t believe I haven’t mentioned this book up to now in this blog. I read it, of course, when I was in my twenties. (And I almost—damn it!—almost actually got to talk to George Roy Hill himself about the film version but we just missed being in the same place at the same time.)
The business with the terrorist trying to understand Charlie and what she did is one of my favorite moments in all of art and entertainment.
The terrorist just wanted to understand something that was beyond understanding.
There are things that bring terror even to terrorists.
The clock had all his attention. “Bring me that imposing radio beside the bed, please, Charlie. We make a little experiment. An interesting technological experiment relating to high-frequency radio.”
She whispered, “Can I put something on?” She pulled on her dress and took the bedside radio to him, a modern thing in black plastic, with a speaker like a telephone dial. Placing the clock and the radio together, Khalil switched on the radio and worked through the channels until suddenly it let out a wounded wail, up and down like an air-raid warning. Then he picked up the clock, pushed back the hinged flap of the battery chamber with his thumb, and shook out the batteries onto the floor, much as he must have done last night. The wailing stopped dead. Like a child who has performed a successful experiment, Khalil lifted his head to her and pretended to smile. She tried not to look at him, but could not help herself.
“Who do you work for, Charlie? For the Germans?”
She shook her head.
“For the Zionists?”
He took her silence for yes.
“Are you Jewish?”
“Do you believe in Israel? What are you?”
“Nothing,” she said.
“Are you Christian? Do you see them as the founders of your great religion?”
Again she shook her head.
“Is it for money? Did they bribe you? Blackmail you?”
She wanted to scream. She clenched her fists and filled her lungs, but the chaos choked her, and she sobbed instead. “It was to save life. It was to take part. To be something. I loved him”
“Did you betray my brother?”
The obstructions in her throat disappearred, to be replaced by a mortal flatness of tone. “I never knew him. I never spoke to him in my life. They showed him to me before they killed him, the rest was invented. Our love affair, my conversion—everything. I didn’t even write the letters, they did. They wrote his letter to you too. The one about me. I fell in love with the man who looked after me. That’s all there is.”
Slowly, without aggression, he reached out his left hand and touched the side of her face, apparently to make sure that she was real. Then looked at the tips of his fingers, and back at her again, somehow comparing them in his mind.