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  • Published: 1 October 2018
  • ISBN: 9780241322376
  • Imprint: Penguin Classics
  • Format: Paperback
  • Pages: 656
  • RRP: $22.99

The Little Drummer Girl

Now a BBC series



It was the Bad Godesberg incident that gave the proof, though the German authorities had no earthly means of knowing this. Before Bad Godesberg, there had been growing suspicion; a lot of it. But the high quality of the planning, as against the poor quality of the bomb, turned the suspicion into certainty. Sooner or later, they say in the trade, a man will sign his name. The vexation lies in the waiting.

It exploded much later than intended, probably a good twelve hours later, at twenty- six minutes past eight on Monday morning. Several defunct wristwatches, the property of victims, confirmed the time. As with its predecessors over the last few months, there had been no warning. But then none had been intended. The Düsseldorf car- bombing of a visiting Israeli arms-procurement official had been preceded by no warning, neither had the book bomb sent to the organisers of an Orthodox Jewish congress in Antwerp, which blew up the honorary secretary and burned her assistant to death. Neither had the dustbin bomb outside an Israeli bank in Zürich, which maimed two passers- by. Only the Stockholm bomb had a warning, and that turned out to be a completely different group, not part of the series at all.

At twenty-five minutes past eight, the Drosselstrasse in Bad Godesberg had been just another leafy diplomatic backwater, about as far from the political turmoils of Bonn as you could reasonably get while staying within fifteen minutes’ drive of them. It was a new street but mature, with lush, secretive gardens, and maids’ quarters over the garages, and Gothic security grilles over the bottle-glass windows. The Rhineland weather for most of the year has the warm wet drip of the jungle; its vegetation, like its diplomatic community, grows almost as fast as the Germans build their roads, and slightly faster than they make their maps. Thus the fronts of some of the houses were already half obscured by dense plantations of conifers, which, if they ever grow to proper size, will presumably one day plunge the whole area into a Grimm’s fairy-tale blackout. These trees turned out to be remarkably effective against blast and, within days of the explosion, one local garden centre had made them a speciality.

Several of the houses wear a patently nationalistic look. The Norwegian Ambassador’s residence, for example, just around the corner from the Drosselstrasse, is an austere, redbrick farmhouse lifted straight from the stockbroker hinterlands of Oslo. The Egyptian consulate, up the other end, has the forlorn air of an Alexandrian villa fallen on hard times. Mournful Arab music issues from it, and its windows are permanently shuttered against the skirmishing North African heat. The season was mid-May and the day had started glorious, with blossom and new leaves rocking together in the light breeze. The magnolia trees were just finished and their sad white petals, mostly shed, afterwards became a feature of the debris. With so much greenery, the bustle of the commuter traffic from the trunk road barely penetrated. The most audible sound until the explosion was the clamour of birds, including several plump doves that had taken a liking to the Australian Military Attaché’s mauve wistaria, his pride. A kilometre southward, unseen Rhine barges provided a throbbing, stately hum, but the residents grow deaf to it unless it stops. In short, it was a morning to assure you that whatever calamities you might be reading about in West Germany’s earnest, rather panicky newspapers – depression, inflation, insolvency, unemployment, all the usual and apparently incurable ailments of a massively prosperous capitalist economy – Bad Godesberg was a settled, decent place to be alive in, and Bonn was not half so bad as it is painted.

Depending on nationality and rank, some husbands had already left for work, but diplomats are nothing if not clichés of their kind. A melancholy Scandinavian Counsellor, for example, was still in bed, suffering from a hangover brought on by marital stress. A South American chargé, clad in a hairnet and Chinese silk dressing-gown, the prize of a tour in Peking, was leaning out of the window giving shopping instructions to his Filipino chauffeur. The Italian Counsellor was shaving but naked. He liked to shave after his bath but before his daily exercises. His wife, fully clothed, was already downstairs remonstrating with an unrepentant daughter for returning home late the night before, a dialogue they enjoyed most mornings of the week. An envoy from the Ivory Coast was speaking on the international telephone, advising his masters of his latest efforts to wring development aid out of an increasingly reluctant German exchequer. When the line went dead, they thought he had hung up on them, and sent him an acid telegram enquiring whether he wished to resign. The Israeli Labour Attaché had left more than an hour ago. He was not at ease in Bonn and as best he could he liked to work Jerusalem hours. So it went, with a lot of rather cheap ethnic jokes finding a basis in reality and death.

Somewhere in every bomb explosion there is a miracle, and in this case it was supplied by the American School bus, which had just come and gone again with most of the community’s younger children who congregated every schoolday in the turning- circle not fifty metres from the epicentre. By a mercy none of the children had forgotten his homework, none had overslept or shown resistance to education on this Monday morning, so the bus got away on time. The rear windows shattered, the driver went side-winding into the verge, a French girl lost an eye, but essentially the children escaped scot-free, which was afterwards held to be a deliverance. For that also is a feature of such explosions, or at least of their immediate aftermath: a communal, wild urge to celebrate the living, rather than to waste time mourning the dead. The real grief in such cases comes later when the shock wears off, usually after several hours, though occasionally less.

The actual noise of the bomb was not a thing people remembered, not if they were close. Across the river in Konigswinter, they heard a whole foreign war and drifted around shaken and half deaf, grinning at each other like accomplices in survival. Those accursed diplomats, they told each other, what could you expect? Pack the lot of them off to Berlin where they can spend our taxes in peace! But those at hand heard at first nothing whatever. All they could speak of, if they could speak at all, was the road tipping, or a chimney- stack silently lifting off the roof across the way, or the gale ripping through their houses, how it stretched their skin, thumped them, knocked them down, blew the flowers out of the vases and the vases against the wall. They remembered the tinkling of falling glass all right, and the timid brushing noise of the young foliage hitting the road. And the mewing of people too frightened to scream. So that clearly they were not so much unaware of noise as blasted out of their natural senses. There were also several references by witnesses to the din of the French Counsellor’s kitchen radio howling out a recipe for the day. One wife, believing herself to be rational, wanted to know from the police whether it was possible that the blast had turned up the radio’s volume. In an explosion, the officers replied gently as they led her away in a blanket, anything was possible, but in this case the explanation was different. With all the glass blown out of the French Counsellor’s windows, and with no one inside in a condition to turn the radio off, there was nothing to stop it from talking straight into the street. But she didn’t really understand.

The press was soon there, of course, straining at the cordons, and the first enthusiastic reports killed eight and wounded thirty and laid the blame on a dotty German right- wing organisation called Nibelungen 5, which consisted of two mentally retarded boys and one mad old man, who could not have blown up a balloon. By midday the press had been forced to scale their bag down to five dead, one of them Israeli, four critically injured, and twelve others in hospital for this and that, and they were talking of the Italian Red Brigades, for which, once more, there was not a shred of proof. Next day they did another turnabout and gave the credit to Black September. The day after that, credit for the outrage was claimed by a group calling itself the Palestine Agony, which laid convincing claim to the previous explosions also. But Palestine Agony stuck, even if it was less of a name for the perpetrators than an explanation for their action. And as such it worked, for it was duly taken up as a headline for many ponderous leading articles.

Of the non-Jews who died, one was the Italians’ Sicilian cook, another their Filipino chauffeur. Of the four injured, one was the wife of the Israeli Labour Attaché, in whose house the bomb had exploded. She lost a leg. The dead Israeli was their small son Gabriel. But the intended victim, it was afterwards widely concluded, was neither of these people, but rather an uncle of the Labour Attaché’s injured wife who was here on a visit from Tel Aviv: a Talmudic scholar who was mildly celebrated for his hawkish opinions regarding the rights of Palestinians on the West Bank. In a word, he believed they should have none, and said so loud and often, in stark defiance of the opinions of his niece the Labour Attaché’s wife, who was of Israel’s liberated left, and whose kibbutz upbringing had not prepared her for the rigorous luxury of diplomatic life.

If Gabriel had been on the school bus, he would have been safe, but Gabriel was on that day, as on many others, unwell. He was a troubled, hyperactive child who till now had been regarded as a discordant element in the street, particularly during the siesta period. But, like his mother, he was gifted musically. Now, with perfect naturalness, no one in the street could remember a child they had loved more. A right-wing German tabloid, brimming with pro- Jewish sentiment, dubbed him ‘the Angel Gabriel’ – a title that, unknown to its editors, did service in both religions – and for a full week ran invented stories of his saintliness. The quality papers echoed the sentiment. Christianity, one star commentator declared – quoting without attribution from Disraeli – was completed Judaism or it was nothing. Thus Gabriel was as much a Christian martyr as a Jewish one; and concerned Germans felt much better for knowing this. Thousands of marks, unsolicited, were sent in by readers and had to be disposed of somehow. There was talk of a Gabriel memorial, but very little talk of the other dead. In accordance with Jewish tradition, Gabriel’s wretchedly small coffin was returned at once for burial in Israel; his mother, too sick to travel, stayed in Bonn until her husband could accompany her, and they could sit shiva together in Jerusalem.

By early afternoon of the day of the explosion, a six- man team of Israeli experts had flown in from Tel Aviv. On the German side, the controversial Dr Alexis, of the Ministry of the Interior, was imprecisely charged with the investigation, and made the airport pilgrimage to meet them. Alexis was a clever, foxy creature, who had suffered all his life from being ten centimetres shorter than most of his fellow men. As a compensation for this handicap, perhaps, he was also headlong: in both his private and official lives, controversy attached to him easily. He was partly lawyer, partly security officer, partly power- player, as the Germans breed them these days, with salty liberal convictions not always welcome to the Coalition, and an unfortunate weakness for airing them on television. His father, it was vaguely understood, had been some kind of resister against the Hitler thing, and the mantle, in these altered times, fitted the erratic son uncomfortably. Certainly there were those in Bonn’s glass palaces who found him insufficiently solid for the job; a recent divorce, with its disturbing revelations of a mistress twenty years his junior, had done little to improve their view of him.

If it had been anybody else arriving, Alexis would not have bothered with the airport at all – there was to be no press coverage of the event – but relations between Israel and the Federal Republic were going through a trough, so he bowed to Ministry pressure and went. Against his wishes, they saddled him at the last minute with a slow- mannered Silesian policeman from Hamburg, a proclaimed conservative and tortoise, who had made a name for himself in the field of ‘student control’ in the seventies and was accounted a great expert on troublemakers and their bombs. The other excuse was that he went down well with Israelis, though Alexis, like everyone else, knew he was there primarily as a counterweight to himself. More important, perhaps, in the fraught climate of the day, both Alexis and the Silesian were unbelastet, meaning that neither was old enough to bear the remotest responsibility for what Germans sadly refer to as their unconquered past. Whatever was being done to Jews today, Alexis and his unwished- for Silesian colleague had not done it yesterday; nor, if further reassurance was needed, had Alexis senior. The press, with guidance from Alexis, made a point of all this. Only one editorial suggested that as long as the Israelis persisted in their indiscriminate bombing of Palestinian camps and villages – killing not one child but dozens at a time – they must reckon on this type of barbaric reprisal. A white- hot, if slightly muddled, retort from the Israeli Embassy’s Press Officer was run hastily the next day. Since 1961, he wrote, the State of Israel had been under constant attack from Arab terrorism. The Israelis would not kill a single Palestinian anywhere if only they could be left in peace. Gabriel had died for one reason only: because he was a Jew. The Germans might possibly remember that Gabriel was not alone in this. If they had forgotten the Holocaust, perhaps they recalled the Munich Olympics of ten years ago?

The editor closed the correspondence and took a day off.

The anonymous Air Force plane from Tel Aviv landed on the far side of the airfield, clearance formalities were waived, and collaboration began at once, a night-and-day affair. Alexis was under pressing orders to deny the Israelis nothing, but such orders were superfluous: he was philosemitisch and known for it. He had made his obligatory ‘liaison’ visit to Tel Aviv and been photographed with bowed head at the Holocaust Museum. As to the ponderous Silesian – well, as he did not tire of reminding everyone who would listen to him, they were all looking for the same enemy, weren’t they? The Reds, clearly.

By the fourth day, though the results of many enquiries were still outstanding, the joint working party had put together a convincing preliminary picture of what had happened.

The Little Drummer Girl John le Carré

Enthralling and thought-provoking, The Little Drummer Girl is le Carré's only spy novel set in the Middle East, and is now published in Penguin Modern Classics for the first time.

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