John le Carre and the art of deception - Hindustan Times
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John le Carre and the art of deception

Dec 01, 2023 06:46 PM IST

In The Pigeon Tunnel, the Apple TV+ film, Errol Morris sits down with novelist John le Carre to sharpen the blur of fact and fiction, truth and memory

At the heart of espionage and fiction is the art of deception. Spies as well as writers love to be flies on the wall, observing people, collecting information, working out plots, and uncovering motives. These overlaps between the language of spycraft and the language of authorship are a testament to how both lines of work use deception in service of a greater truth. If fiction is a deception, then espionage fiction by nature is doubly so. Spy novels are premised on performance, imposture, misdirection and chicanery. Readers are invited into a world whose binary framework of good and evil are clouded by moral ambiguity.

The Pigeon Tunnel turned out to be John le Carré’s final interview before his death in 2020. (Apple TV+) PREMIUM
The Pigeon Tunnel turned out to be John le Carré’s final interview before his death in 2020. (Apple TV+)

At the heart of espionage and fiction is the art of deception. Spies as well as writers love to be flies on the wall, observing people, collecting information, working out plots, and uncovering motives. These overlaps between the language of spycraft and the language of authorship are a testament to how both lines of work use deception in service of a greater truth. If fiction is a deception, then espionage fiction by nature is doubly so. Spy novels are premised on performance, imposture, misdirection and chicanery. Readers are invited into a world whose binary framework of good and evil are clouded by moral ambiguity.

The Apple TV+ film is named for le Carré’s 2016 memoir (Amazon)
The Apple TV+ film is named for le Carré’s 2016 memoir (Amazon)

Nowhere is this moral ambiguity more striking than in the espionage fiction of John le Carré. Deception, in its countless variations, was the lifeblood of all his novels. As it was also a poison that had coursed through the veins of his life, he understood that the volatile experience of being deceived made for great storytelling. Mixing facts from his own life with his fiction became second nature to a writer who was once a spy. In The Pigeon Tunnel, the Apple TV+ film named for le Carré’s 2016 memoir, American documentarian Errol Morris sits down with the English novelist to sharpen the blur of fact and fiction, truth and memory. The film turned out to be le Carré’s final interview before his death in 2020. The interview however doesn’t feel charged with a sense of finality.

When le Carré speaks, there is that same artful eloquence to his voice, that same mindful economy in his words, that same evocative power of his anecdotes, as when he wrote his greatest novels, from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) to A Perfect Spy (1986). Add to that the intimacy of hearing it all straight from the horse’s mouth, from a natural raconteur and an enigmatic author. Morris indeed is no stranger to profiling tricky subjects who tend to be slippery with the truth. In The Fog of War (2003), he got the buttoned-up former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara to admit to behaving as a war criminal. Over the years, he has unmasked the many faces of malicious obfuscation: Holocaust denier Fred Leuchter in Mr Death (1999), Iraq War architect Donald Rumsfeld in The Unknown Known (2013), and Donald Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon in American Dharma (2018). Going by past profiles, decoding the enigma that is le Carré should have been right in his wheelhouse.

“In The Fog of War (2003), Errol Morris got the buttoned-up former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara to admit to behaving as a war criminal.” (MUBI)
“In The Fog of War (2003), Errol Morris got the buttoned-up former US Secretary of Defence Robert McNamara to admit to behaving as a war criminal.” (MUBI)

Only le Carré is a man who liked to keep his cards very close to his chest. Being a writer and a former spy, he is keen to be the one in control. Right at the beginning of the film, who is in control vs who is being controlled is called into question. In fact, the question of “Who are you?” is first posed to the unseen Morris. It isn’t until le Carré establishes a baseline understanding of his interviewer’s intentions that he begins to open up. Whatever he opens up about are on his terms. Such a degree of control limits the epistemological perimeter of a profile.

At a runtime of around 90 minutes, The Pigeon Tunnel thus plays like a compact but censored cut of le Carré’s life and career. Building on an idea from his own novel The Secret Pilgrim (1990), le Carré speaks of how spies and writers alike go on a futile search for meaning, truth, understanding in an “inmost room” that is ultimately “bare.” There is a similar emptiness within him, he claims. But it’s impossible not to wonder if this claim is nothing but an evasion strategy of a master compartmentalizer. Is the poker face he holds, the words he uses, the anecdotes he chooses, the foggy memories he layers upon the truth, all part of an act to eternalise his mystique? After all, he does declare in an opening statement, “This is a performance art.” Scepticism does come with the territory. We are talking about a man who was an artist of deception in more ways than one.

“Building on an idea from his own novel The Secret Pilgrim (1990), le Carré speaks of how spies and writers alike go on a futile search for meaning, truth, understanding in an ‘inmost room’ that is ultimately ‘bare’.” (Amazon)
“Building on an idea from his own novel The Secret Pilgrim (1990), le Carré speaks of how spies and writers alike go on a futile search for meaning, truth, understanding in an ‘inmost room’ that is ultimately ‘bare’.” (Amazon)

While interviewing, Morris trains his camera on le Carré by way of the Interrotron — a mechanism the filmmaker designed to ensure continuous eye contact with his subjects so as to create an intimacy without sacrificing necessary distance. As le Carré relates stories from his life that bled into his fiction, Morris cuts to archival footage and clips from BBC adaptations. Dramatic re-enactments map the hazy contours of fading memories. Spliced press clippings, canted angles and prismatic mirrors reveal an elusive personality whose fiction was the real refracted.

Before he became a novelist, le Carré, born David Cornwell, was educated at Oxford and taught at Eton. While at Eton, he joined the British secret service: first, the MI5, and two years later, the MI6. But he grew disillusioned with both. Seeing former Nazis in East and West Germany, as if the war had never happened, felt like a betrayal — a theme he keeps circling back to and traces to a difficult upbringing under the thumb of a conman father. Ronnie Cornwell emerges as a towering presence whose shadow loomed large over le Carré’s entire life. While dad Ronnie spent most of his life in and out of prison, mom Olive snuck out on the family when he was five. The pain of these betrayals became the drip-feed energising the betrayals in his fiction. “Childhood is the credit balance of the author’s inspiration,” says le Carré, quoting fellow spy-turned-novelist Graham Greene.

Besides Ronnie, another charismatic but treacherous figure who left a lasting impact on le Carré’s work was Kim Philby, the MI6 agent who turned over classified information to the Soviets for years before defecting. This betrayal fed directly into Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, in which the mole Bill Haydon bears a close resemblance to Philby. Cold War rhetoric in the West may have been quick to cast the Soviet Union as the antagonist, and the US and its allies as champions of the greater good. Le Carré however refused to take a dualistic view of good and evil. As a former spy, he understood that espionage took its moral character from those who sanctioned it. As a novelist, he staged the theatre of war in all its moral ambiguities. Idealism curdled in the face of dirty schemes on both sides. Loyalties became divided.

“Le Carré’s world of spies was much murkier, seedier, harsher than Ian Fleming’s. Smiley, for example, could be considered the beta to Bond’s alpha.” (Amazon)
“Le Carré’s world of spies was much murkier, seedier, harsher than Ian Fleming’s. Smiley, for example, could be considered the beta to Bond’s alpha.” (Amazon)

Yet, when le Carré recalls being invited to dinner with Philby at a 1988 party in Moscow, he is quick to dismiss the man as a “traitor” and as “evil.” This dissonance grows louder in his recollection of a betrayal of a close friendship. While working as an informer for the MI5, he admits to reporting on a left-wing student and all his associates. For a man haunted by betrayals, le Carré has little trouble justifying his own. “I still think it had to be done,” he insists, despite doubts over whether he was on the right or wrong side of the war. The certainty of his insistence is at odds with the ambiguity of his work. In a way, this contradiction proves a point he himself made in many novels — The Tailor of Panama (1996) in particular — that spies, in deceiving others, are also deceiving themselves.

What made le Carré stand out from most other writers of espionage fiction was his knack for couching social criticism in the conventions of the genre. Britain, in his novels as in reality, was a country which concealed its cruelty and darkness behind a veneer of civility and righteousness. “The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth,” says the veteran spy George Smiley about the ruling class in The Secret Pilgrim. “Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damn fool. Nobody acts braver when he’s frightened stiff, or happier when he’s miserable; nobody can flatter you better when he hates you than your extrovert Englishman or woman.”

Novelist John le Carre (Krimidoedel / Wikimedia Commons)
Novelist John le Carre (Krimidoedel / Wikimedia Commons)

Working as spies for a ruling class of dissemblers meant enduring the moral hazards of being called upon to manipulate, entrap and kill for Queen and Country. All the cloak and dagger does take its toll. Magnus Pym, le Carré’s stand-in and protagonist of A Perfect Spy, is a man so tormented by memories of his abusive con man father, he becomes torn between loyalty to self and loyalty to state. By contrast, it is the idea that an individual can prevail over an institution that motivates the best spies. “To feel you’re the hub of the universe is wonderful for the vanity,” le Carré says in the film. But to thrive in a world of secrets and paranoia, lamplighters and scalphunters, a spy must embrace the duality of pretending to be someone else. “The joy of self-imposed schizophrenia,” as he phrases it.

Le Carré himself didn’t enjoy the self-imposed schizophrenia. Nor did his creations, be it Alec Leamas, George Smiley or Magnus Pym. James Bond may have. But Le Carré’s world of spies was much murkier, seedier, harsher than Ian Fleming’s. Smiley, for example, could be considered the beta to Bond’s alpha. He is short, fat, bald and serially cuckolded. He isn’t romancing shell riders and fighting giant squids. Observation, not seduction, is his MO. Being unassuming, not flashy, is his style. He is a reluctant hero striving to do the right thing as the world keeps changing around him. Le Carré does not glamourise the dirty work spies are authorised to do in the name of national security. “What the hell do you think spies are? Moral philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx?” Leamas asks the woman he loves and betrays at the end of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. “They’re not. They’re just a bunch of seedy, squalid bastards like me: little men, drunkards, queers, henpecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”

“Magnus Pym, le Carré’s stand-in and protagonist of A Perfect Spy, is a man so tormented by memories of his abusive con man father, he becomes torn between loyalty to self and loyalty to state.” (Amazon)
“Magnus Pym, le Carré’s stand-in and protagonist of A Perfect Spy, is a man so tormented by memories of his abusive con man father, he becomes torn between loyalty to self and loyalty to state.” (Amazon)

This existential emptiness of being a spy is conveyed in the film’s very title, which was also the working title for each of le Carré’s novels at some point. When le Carré was young, his dad took him to the shooting range of a Monte Carlo hotel. Caged on the roof of the hotel were flocks of pigeons awaiting their deaths. One by one, these pigeons would be loaded into tunnels below the lawn and emerge as targets for the marksmen waiting above in the balcony overlooking the sea. Those who survived or got wounded would not fly off into the sea, but return to their cages on the roof. As to why this image haunted him, le Carré maintains the answer eluded him.

On watching a recreation with CGI pigeons in the film, the answer shouldn’t be as elusive to us. The tiny window of freedom embodies the hopes of East Germans who risked their lives to flee across the Iron Curtain. The fate of the pigeons mirrors the fate of spies, both agent and victim of their own deception, being sent on deathly assignments. The wounded creatures looping home speaks to how le Carré, even as an old man, remained caught in a loop, revisiting the mystery of his upbringing, scarred by a fraught relationship with his father. Above all, the image of the pigeon tunnel drives home the inescapability of the past. Those who don’t learn from it are doomed to repeat it. Only those who do can break out of its loop.

Prahlad Srihari is a film and pop culture writer. He lives in Bangalore.

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