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The name’s not Bond: John le Carré (1931-2020)

“What do you think spies are? Priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” So says Alec Leamas, the cynical, world-weary, 50-something protagonist of John le Carré’s 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

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The words represent the paradigm shift that le Carré brought to the idea of spies in the popular imagination, an idea nourished by the debonair derring-do of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, whose macho romps through danger and dangerous women oozed glamour and pizzazz. In contrast, the world of Cold War espionage as wrought by le Carré is complex and sordid — sordid in its deceit, corruption and treachery, sordid in its shadowy machinations and muddling of good and evil. But once readers got a taste of it, they felt it was the real thing.

Murky moral universe

John le Carré, born David Cornwell, who died on December 12 at the age of 89 , was, without doubt, the greatest master of the spy novel. Densely plotted and vividly characterised, his books are not just suspense storytelling at its best, but also depictions of a murky moral universe, and of human beings who are both participants in and victims of vast, invisible iniquities that the liberal West is as guilty of perpetrating as are regions less known for their dedication to human life.

When it came to writing about the dark arts of espionage, le Carré had something of an insider’s eye. In 1948, when he was just 16, he began working for the British secret service while studying German at University of Berne, and then while at Oxford a few years later. After a short stint as a teacher at Eton, he joined the British Foreign Office in 1958, and spent the next few years recruiting and running spies on the other side of the Iron Curtain. While at it, he was also trying his hand at writing.

He published his first novel, Call for the Dead (1961) under the name of John le Carré, since service rules didn’t allow him to use his own name. Fame came with his third book, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a gritty tour de forcewhich Graham Greene called the “the best spy story I have ever read”.

He left the Foreign Office soon after — according to some reports, because his identity was outed by British double agent Kim Philby, who decamped to Moscow in 1963. However, le Carré continued to maintain, till as late as the 1980s, that his work at the British foreign office had not involved espionage.

Meanwhile, in novel after novel, he spun his bleak, richly-detailed world of spy craft, orchestrated from on high by the ‘Circus’, his rather delicious name for the London-based headquarters of MI6. Its most memorable denizen is, of course, George Smiley. Short, podgy, donnish and a cuckold to boot, Smiley is a super spook who is the very antithesis of James Bond. He appears in multiple books, but most centrally in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) and Smiley’s People (1979) — a thrilling trifecta of intrigue, where he is locked in a deadly battle of wits with his KGB counterpart, Karla.

After the Cold War

When the Cold War ended, some felt that le Carré would lose his muse. Not so. He focused on other battle zones and wrote about them with his usual forensic flair: the international arms trade in The Night Manager (1993), the predations of big pharma in The Constant Gardener (2001), the war on Iraq in Absolute Friends (2003), and so on. His 2008 novel, A Most Wanted Man, is a gut-wrenching story of a Muslim immigrant destroyed by Western intelligence agencies amidst the post-9/11 paranoiathat pervaded the ‘war on terror’.

Deception and betrayal are central to le Carré’s works, and that’s not merely because of his experience in espionage. The roots go deeper — to his childhood and his fraught relationship with his father, Ronnie Cornwell, a charming con man. In his 2016 memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel , le Carré calls him a “fantasist and an occasional jail bird”, who often wrote to him from foreign prisons asking for money. There are clear echoes of Ronnie in the character of Rick Pym, father of Magnus Pym, the troubled double agent and protagonist of A Perfect Spy (1986), which is also le Carré’s most autobiographical novel.

Le Carré, who married twice and had four sons, wrote 25 novels over a career spanning almost 60 years. Despite the indubitable literary merit of his works and the fact that they transcend the narrow descriptor of spy fiction, he consistently eschewed prizes and awards. When he was nominated for the Man Booker International Prize in 2011 for lifetime contribution to fiction, he had his name removed from the list.

Bred in the Cold War era, le Carré may have rejoiced in the fall of communism, but he was, till the end, furiously indignant about the loathsomeness and hubris of states. He saw the world change — and then saw that it hadn’t really, and that the same games of power and violence and treachery were being played again and again. In his passing, we have lost a giant, and a mighty chronicler of our times.

The writer is a journalist and author.


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