By Johan Liebenberg
John le Carré, perhaps the greatest living writer of spy stories, published A Delicate Truth earlier this year. Included among his many works are The Constant Gardener and the trilogy of spy novels featuring his famous character, George Smiley. By Johan Liebenberg
John le Carré turned 82 in October. He has received lavish praise and several awards for his work, including being ranked 22nd on The Times list of The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945. He shot to fame with the publication in 1963 of his third novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which became an international bestseller, and remains one of his best-known works today. Graham Greene, his hero, hailed The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as “the best spy novel I have ever read”.
Dwight Garner, writing in The New York Times, noted that Le Carré’s books are less about espionage than they are about human frailty and desire; they’re about how we are, all of us, spies of a sort.
Oxford University bestowed an honorary degree on le Carré and renowned editor Robert Gottlied scoffed at the idea that Le Carré is a genre hack, as alleged by some.
“He’s a brilliant writer for whom spies are merely subject matter,” Gottlieb said. “Calling him a spy writer is like calling Joseph Conrad a sea writer, or Jane Austen a domestic-comedy writer.”
Le Carré dislikes giving interviews and shuns publicity. He also asked that his name be removed from the nominations list for the Man Booker Prize because he doesn’t write to compete for literary prizes. Despite this, earlier this year, Ian McEwan, himself a writer of ‘literary spy stories’ told The Guardian that he thinks that John le Carré deserves the prize.
McEwan also quite succinctly provides a perspective on how he thinks we should judge what we read: “In the end these things just dissolve,” he says. “The only question is how good a novel is, not whether it has spies or detectives or nurses marrying doctors. Take Conrad – we wouldn’t say of him that he’s merely a writer of seafaring yarns. What matters is whether a novelist can devise a particular and plausible world that holds us, and make a moral universe that has such a resonance that we can go back years later and find it still works. Then genre is transcended. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy holds up because it’s a brilliant novel.”
The novel McEwan is referring to features, of course, that most enduring of characters, George Smiley. But he is memorable for very different reasons than those that made, say, James Bond, famous. When the – we are led to believe – beautiful Lady Ann Sercomb married George Smiley she described him as “breathtakingly ordinary” to her friends, eventually leaving him for a Cuban motor racing driver. And this is how the author himself describes George Smiley: “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”
Regrettably, this memorable character is absent from Le Carré’s latest novel, A Delicate Truth, which was published this year. Instead, it features as its protagonists a mid-level official employed, at the start of the novel, by the Foreign Service, Kit or Paul Anderson and a rising star, now serving as something of a ‘minder’ in the office of the new minister,
At issue here, according to the author and quoted in an essay that appeared in Harper’s, is: “How far can we go in the rightful defence of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?” These words, uttered against a backdrop of the Iraqi War and certain events that clouded the tenure of Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Labour Party, assume a dark significance in the novel.
At the beginning, Paul Anderson (Kit Probyn) finds himself ensconced in a hotel room in Gibraltar where members of the SAS and a private American security firm called Ethical Outcomes are attempting to capture an Al Qaeda kingpin in what is called Operation Wildlife. This they fail to do, instead killing an innocent Muslim mother and her child – as we discover later. For the moment, though, Paul Anderson is oblivious to this and is told that the operation was a ‘great success’. Later, under his real name of Christopher (Kit) Probyn, he is awarded a commissionership in the Caribbean and a knighthood.
The other protagonist, Toby Bell, formerly employed in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is an upcoming star now employed as private secretary to the dubious Fergus Quinn, now a minister. Bell is also an idealist, a rarity, it seems, in Whitehall. When Bell becomes suspicious of the actions of his boss and learns that the minister is planning a top secret meeting with ‘certain parties’ he smuggles into his office – guess what – not a modern listening device but an old-fashioned tape recorder and records the proceedings. This is both ironic – using such an old-fashioned device in our hi-tech times – and a distant echo of a similar device that was employed more than a half century earlier in what became known as the Watergate Scandal.
The whole business of Operation Wildlife is, of course, covered up by the puppet masters and the reader is introduced to some thoroughly disreputable characters, including some Americans with sacks of money but a bit thin on moral fibre. If Graham Greene managed to annoy Americans with The Quiet American, then I think Le Carré will follow in his footsteps with this novel.
Some years after Operation Wildlife, Sir Christopher Probyn – Kit – finds himself in the idyllic setting of north Cornwall. But a serpent stirs in paradise. A Welshman, a soldier who took part in Operation Wildlife, has come to share the darker aspects of the operation and Kit, who took pride in what he thought was an honourable mission, is shocked. He goes about setting the record straight and returns, Quixote-like, to Whitehall.
During this time, we are introduced to Kit’s rather alluring daughter and Toby Bell enters the fray. Inevitably, although subtly, a romantic relationship develops, but it is given just the right weight and is not over-written. The unfolding of the rest of the story is a page-turner – a master is at work. But even a master may have flaws, not so?
I think Le Carré is sometimes guilty of over-writing certain scenes. His jumping between the present and the past tense – flashbacks – go on and on, and left me feeling frustrated. At times, in reading the passages describing life with Kit in Cornwell, I thought I was reading passages from Under Milk Wood, or even James Joyce. I am not suggesting anything sinister, of course, but it’s just that, for me, the author seems to relish his deftness, his mercurial abilities as author, too much, and that he is inclined to linger too long instead of moving the plot forward. It’s as though he feels the tug to produce literature too strongly, and then temporarily abandons the task of producing a great spy novel.
I had a problem with the structure too. Le Carré deals at length with Kit towards the end without us ever learning of his fate, and that of his wife. After a lengthy detour we are brought back to Toby Bell, now joined by Kit’s daughter, and from here the story takes on the qualities of a classic spy tale with conspiracies abounding. This reader heaved a sigh of relief.
If I thought the author’s fluctuation between past and present was frustrating in A Delicate Truth, then there was more of the same awaiting me as I picked up A Perfect Spy, his semi-autobiographical novel published in 1986. At first I was delighted. I couldn’t help making notes of such gems as: “Mary would be quite willing to take her revenge with Grant, whose lurking intensity she found increasingly to be rather a turn on”. And: “Draft Magnus for president?” Bee purred, sitting up straight and pressing out her breasts as if somebody had offered her a chocolate. “Oh goody.” ‘But despite its many exquisite sentences and beautiful observed mannerisms, I became so exasperated that I had trouble finishing this book, which by the way Philip Roth writing in The Observer, called ‘The best English novel since the war, while The Sunday Times trumpeted, “Without doubt his masterpiece”. I am clearly the odd one out here.
Be that as it may, after reading a number of other novels that also leapt from the past tense to the present (by other authors), in excruciatingly drawn-out flashbacks, I yearned – and call me old fashioned if you like – for a tale told in a straightforward fashion. I picked up The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and was immediately swept along as the unfolding events propelled the story forward – never backwards. It satisfied on some deep, atavistic level, the curiosity that prompts one to ask, in an almost childlike way, ‘What happens next?’ – not what happened before!