Le Carré captured the human condition, in the Cold War and beyond
John le Carré, whose real name was David Cornwell, produced fine literary novels writing about the world of spies. But it would be a mistake to see him as only a genre writer of spy thrillers.
Through the grey world of espionage, Le Carré wrote about the human condition. In his own words: “Out of the secret world I once knew, I tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit.”
Le Carré was working in MI6, the British foreign intelligence service, when he began writing fiction under an assumed name. His third book, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, became the breakthrough novel propelling him to worldwide attention. I read the book while at college. It was a revelation and opened new insights into the shadowy world of espionage in the Cold War period.
Unlike the glamourised life of spies pictured in Ian Fleming’s novels and James Bond films, Le Carré dealt with the real world where agents and double agents operate. In his work, vanity and petty ambition, love and betrayal, deception and intrigue, moral confusion and other foibles of human nature, unfold.
Though opposed to Communism, his novels about spying during the Cold War, showed the moral ambiguities and darker aspects of both sides.
His trilogy of novels — Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People — is a classic. The central character is George Smiley who is searching for a “mole” within the Circus (Overseas Intelligence Agency). Smiley is quiet, unassuming, portly and brilliant but an unlikely hero. He is one of the most remarkable characters in British fiction in the post-war period.
One can read the Tinker Tailor trilogy again and again to understand some of the great issues and moral questions which were pervasive in those times. Apart from Smiley, there are other unforgettable characters.
Connie Sachs, the arthritic, wheelchair bound brilliant researcher with a long memory at the archives of Circus; Toby Esterhase, the debonair head of the surveillance team; and, of course, Karla, the enigmatic head of a KGB counter-intelligence department. As Smiley tells Karla when they meet, “We are not so different you and I”.
With the end of the Soviet Union and the Cold War, many wondered what Le Carré would write about. The oeuvre for his writing seemed extinguished. But Le Carré surprised us all. A series of books emerged which took up the injustices of our times.
Le Carré had a clear eyed view of the wrongs perpetrated by predatory capitalism.
The Constant Gardener was a brilliant and searing indictment of Big Pharma and its unethical practices and exploitation. An earlier book, The Little Drummer Girl, was a complex novel, that showed deep empathy for the plight of the Palestinian people. Absolute Friends is a ferocious attack on the war on Iraq.
Le Carré’s opposition to the war on Iraq and his disillusionment with Tony Blair and New Labour are evident in these books. A Most Wanted Man is an indictment of the war on terror, extraordinary rendition and the use of torture. A Delicate Truth unravels the nexus of government and shadowy arms dealers in an increasingly privatised defence sector.
These books of the post-Cold War period caused unease among some of his admirers. They and some critics felt he had taken a turn to the Left and was putting things in stark black and white terms. But this is precisely why I admire his later books, for their forthright positions against the exploitation of Africa by multinational companies, the sharp practices of the moneyed cliques, drug-running, imperialist wars, and Islamophobia.
We should rejoice that David Cornwell, a mid-level intelligence officer, decided in 1961 to become a writer and transformed into John Le Carré. He will be remembered as one of the finest novelists of post-war Britain.
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