Media Circus: Our Man in Panama

John le Carri's new novel, a guided tour of tropical corruption in Panama, has caused a quiet fury in that country  in part because it can't quite be dismissed as pure fiction.

Published December 18, 1996 8:00PM (EST)

a plaintive cry drifted up from somewhere far south and was quickly drowned out by a ringing of cash registers. I think it was Panama, meekly protesting its treatment by John le Carri, whose latest novel, "The Tailor of Panama," has just poked its nose into the best-seller list.

The novel portrays bumbling British spies making a mess of things in an already messy Panama. The Tailor himself is a British ex-jailbird, who emerges from stir to con Panama's elite into believing he is a perfectly respectable sort -- an upstanding merchant of Savile Row bringing British refinement to the tropics. But, having been out-conned, first by a piggish Panamanian banker, then by an overzealous British spy, he finds himself forced to sell the imagined secrets of his adopted country to the Home Office to get himself out of debt, and his homeland into trouble.

Le Carri's rousing portrait of tropical skullduggery has caused quiet fury in Panama, where many of those who can afford the imported English-language edition (and the bilingual education to read it) served as social guides to the author during his research visits. Now they are dismayed to find that "The Tailor" is stitched together with images of their country as a stereotypical white-suited banana republic, populated by thousand-dollar-hit-men and the grotesquely hypocritical lovers who employ them.

"Panama's not a country, it's a casino," le Carri declares at one point. "Gossip is what Panama has instead of culture," he exclaims at another. "Great Men in Panama ... have paneled, steel-lined bulletproof doors of rain-forest teak with brass handles you can't turn because the doors are worked on buzzers from within so that Great Men can't be kidnapped. ..." And in this casino of Great Men, money is laundered and idealistic young women are beaten beyond recognition, while a pathetic pack of British diplomats coerce conspiracy theories from those not in the know and trump up a local takeover of the canal.

"Exaggeration" was the careful accusation wielded by a Panamanian gentleman of my acquaintance. "Misconceptions" were diplomatically attributed to Mr. le Carri by the Panamanian Embassy in Washington. "I am aware that novelists live in a world beyond reality," wrote Ambassador Eduardo Morgan in an unpublished letter to The New York Times. "For that reason I am not surprised to learn ... [that le Carri's] keen sense for 'cloak and dagger' ambiance should spill over from his fiction on to his perception of the facts."

Yet Panamanians seem not so much angered as hurt by the book's transgressions. "It's sad that le Carri chose Panama for this scenario," said Fernando Etela, a minister at the Panamanian Embassy, phrasing his discomfort most discreetly. No one has called for public book burnings on the streets of Panama City. Indeed, the controversy hasn't even made it out of the club rooms and into the local press -- although it did merit a story in The New York Times.

The upper echelon of Panamanian society debates its treatment in the novel and plays guessing games to decide which fictional characters might correspond to the nation's real-life powerbrokers. But so far no one has tried to fundamentally challenge le Carri's portrait of the country.

"Geographically, Panama is obviously a strategic point for both the legal and illegal world," concedes Rolando Paredes. The Consul General of Panama in San Francisco has yet to read the engrossing tale. But others have reported their findings to him. "It seems to me that [le Carri] was looking for a sinister setting for his plot ... Panama may not be free of sin, but it's not as bad as all that. ..."

Has the Panamanian response been so muted because the novel's assertions are close to the truth? "Exaggeration," after all, is not a crime, or not a major one, in any case -- and the Panamanian critics know well that the dossier filed by the great spy-storyteller was put together with first-hand reconnaissance and assistance from Panama's upper crust.

But a more profound explanation for the relative silence may well be that Panama, like its neighbors, has learned to turn the other cheek in the face of the countless embellishments, fallacies and downright lies that have been spread about the Americas since the first Europeans arrived to plunder the continent. The conquistadors sent tall tales back to their kings to ensure their own fame and fortune. And in more recent times, respected writers such as V.S. Naipaul and Bruce Chatwin have been received into the homes of prominent South Americans, only to compose warped depictions of the Latin cultures they had visited, bringing them literary success with distant readers who never knew of the bitter dismay their books ("The Return of Eva Persn," "In Patagonia") had left behind.

Perhaps Panamanians recognize that "The Tailor" is close enough to the truth that raising a noisier protest would only make the country the object of still greater ridicule -- especially given the international propensity to see Latin America as preposterous and inferior.

Still, it's troubling how easily Americans and Europeans give in to the temptation to see the vast Spanish-speaking South as a continuous strip of corruption and hypocrisy, with few distinguishing features or subtleties. Despite the hundreds of distinct languages and cultures, the dozens of religions, the distinct responses to colonization, dictatorship, and now democracy, our picture of Latin America is generally reduced to a hot and greasy politician ordering assassinations over a lunch of chile peppers, before indulging in a steamy siesta with his tainted business partners. Given its lack of political muscle -- and the proverbial kernel of truth in such a depiction -- Latin America has made little headway in dispelling this lurid image.

Surely there is more to Panama than the sticky, perfume-drenched, polluted Central American country we conjure up with each news story we read about drug-dealing General Manuel Noriega or the mismanagement of the Canal. It's just that it can't be found in "The Tailor of Panama."

This, I think, is what that almost unheard cry is all about. We know that le Carri's boisterous image of a naive but egotistical country is fiction, and that writers of fiction (as the Ambassador says) "live in a world beyond reality," but we can't help but confuse the storyteller's mythical Panama with the real one. It becomes our Panama. The Panamanians, it seems, are upset not with le Carri's failure to tell the truth, but with his failure to tell the whole truth -- and with the rest of us, who never stop to question the veracity of our picture of our neighbors to the South.

EXTRA! Bork you, America!

The last we heard from Robert Bork (see the Media Circus for November 15), he was denouncing the Supreme Court and planning to possibly secede from the Union. In the cover story of the December 30th issue of The New Republic, Jacob Heilbrunn examines in detail the controversy we reported on: the growing rift between (mostly Jewish) neocons and (mostly Catholic) "theocons" -- including Bork -- who seem to believe that the country should return to its roots as a "Christian nation."

By Kaitlin Quistgaard

Kaitlin Quistgaard, Salon's former technology editor, writes frequently about the arts and South America, where she once lived.

MORE FROM Kaitlin Quistgaard

Related Topics ------------------------------------------