Fact and fiction in the spy world: The craft of John le Carre

Fact and fiction in the spy world: The craft of John le Carre

A new novel by John le Carre is a matter of celebration for his legion of fans all over the world, and I certainly count myself as one. His latest offering ‘A Delicate Truth’ comes out when the master is 81 years old, and  50 years after his first novel - ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.’

Having impatiently waited for his latest and after savouring it in a day, I breathe a sigh of relief:  he does not disappoint, his ability to plot, to tease your intelligence, to create characters with a deft touch, and to capture authentic bureaucratic dialogue are all there, and more importantly, he has kept up with all that has changed in the ‘strategic culture,’ to use a currently fashionable term.

To call John le Carre a spy writer is like calling Jane Austen, ‘chicklit’ - a description that does great injustice to the writer and the craft. Yet as le Carre himself has admitted ruefully,  the success of his first novel ‘The spy who came in....’ made this label stick. It is not that the label is false, he does indeed delve into the stuff of espionage, but he is so much more. As assessments from established literary figures like Philip Roth or Ian McEwan confirm, he is first a writer, a great novelist, a superb craftsman of words for whom the issues of geopolitics and the vocations of  diplomats and spies are the material for weaving his spell.

Why is le Carre so special? Essentially because he is so cerebral and at the same time such a great storyteller. All through the cold war period he wrote novels of great geo-political authenticity, with plots worthy of what the best in British intelligence, CIA and KGB could dream up. His novels set in Berlin, Prague, London, or Washington captured vividly what the most intelligent of the intelligence operatives in these ‘stations’ could have been up to. Characters who were to become legends in the genre were created, above all, the British agent ‘Smiley’ made memorable by Alec Guinness in movies, the shadowy Russian chief Karla, the gung-ho Americans from the CIA and a cast of minor characters, who came to populate a world that le Carre meticulously created.

In the process he told us of how spy craft is actually practiced, not like James Bond’s  unrealistic world of razzmatazz and gadgetry, but a slow, ponderous and calibrated process of deception and counter deception. His authentic descriptions of the embassies, foreign offices, meetings of diplomats and espiocrats -- a term for intelligence bureaucrats that he created -- is authentic to the core, as this former diplomat can testify.

Cold war

What makes le Carre exceptional, however, is his stance of moral ambiguity about the two sides in the cold war. The greatest tribute to his imagination came when at the end of the cold war, the legendary spy chief of East Germany admitted in an interview  that the world that he had controlled was something like what le Carre had described. There was that kind of enlightened understanding and empathy for the ideological adversary. Loyalty and betrayal for le Carre are a part of the human condition. Not for him, only the heroes from the western world and the villains all from the Communist corner. He is too sophisticated for that and expects his readers too, to go beyond such simplicities of a Robert Ludlum or even a Frederick Forsyth, the more popular spy thriller writers.

As Glasnost and Perestroika began to appear at the end of the ’80s, le Carre plots were already changing. For me, some of his best novels are from this period: ‘Russia House’ about the misgivings of a well meaning Russian nuclear scientist and the still cynical world of the CIA and the KGB; ‘Perfect Spy,’ a witty tale of  how career growth is managed in the secret world; and ‘The Secret Pilgrim,’ with all the lessons of the trade to the young recruits, from the now old master Smiley.

As the ’90s dawned, le Carre novels began to travel all around the world. The new evils at work were big industry ruthlessly driven by profit, arms merchants, private mercenaries, and as a grand theme --greed displacing old fashioned patriotism.  His novels set in Panama, Nairobi, Congo, and others in Eurasia- Turkey, Chechnya, Georgia, are a testimony to how the novelist kept pace with the changes in the geo-politics. To read le Carr'e is a form of education in itself, about the trouble spots in the world.

In the last decade, le Carre’s attention and anger has turned, as it ought, to GWOT - the Global War on Terrorism, as the  CIA honchos would term it.  He has taken an explicitly critical stance about what Bush and Blair did, the wars for the non-existing WMDs, the new practices of  ‘enhanced interrogation’ or ‘extraordinary rendition.’ All his reservations are embedded not in pontificatory editorials, but in exquisite novels, and le Carre seems to be taking a position of sympathy for the individual and suspicion against the Establishment.

The latest novel,  ‘A Delicate Truth,’ currently in Indian bookstores, even before its official release in the US, is very contemporary in its concerns. To say more about its plot would be unfair to the author and to the potential reader. But a new generation of readers interested in geo-political novels with big themes can make a beginning with it. For older fans of the author, it is a matter of joy that we continue to get such credible stories from our beloved writer.

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