When John le Carré writes, the intelligent reader listens. His prose is a chamber of echoes, its crosscurrents eerie despite being leavened with wit: the laughter is touched by the menace of threat, a demon in on a private joke. Sometimes the joke is a little obvious, but only if you haven’t missed it; paradox is routine in le Carré’s English English. Peregrine Makepiece, do we have here? Surely an all-round amateur athlete of distinction and until recently tutor at Oxford who does Most Serious climbs for recreation, with a sparky long-standing girlfriend Gail, should be the more traditional Makepeace. The author dangles the joke a bit, noting that Peregrine, a worthy upper class moniker, actually derives from a Methodist rabble-rousing prelate, thus establishing class, a vital component of the le Carré cast system. No explanations are deemed necessary for the surname. You can decide, and then change your mind through the narrative, into how many pieces Peregrine will split before it all ends in the nebulous zone of moral ambiguity and hazy non-closure in which the le Carré population has wandered ever since The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
This was actually le Carré’s third novel, but the first for most of us who became fans in college and are heading towards our own twilight withthe author still as company. Nothing ends in le Carré. The last sentence is a door ajar for the next book. The final pronouncement in Our Kind of Traitor is a gem of the ouvre: “No group has claimed responsibility”. Someone will, but perhaps through a seemingly unlinked echo in the 23rd book.
Le Carré does treachery well. Born in 1931, he was in his teens when Stalin switched from foe to friend during the Second World War, a conflict that would have destroyed, had it gone wrong, all the good that Britain stood for, values and civilisation, while preserving the injustice of brutal colonisation; and then became Evil Incarnate in the Cold War that followed. The romance of shadows edged him into the British Intelligence services, where he picked up a basic lesson: loyalty has little to do with virtue. Treachery could even be a higher firm of virtue, if one were to believe the Cambridge lot of spies, the most persuasive of them being the extraordinary Kim Philby, a mole who rose to head the anti-Soviet division of British intelligence and became the inspiration of both brilliant and awful spy fiction. As Philby pointed out to my friend Phillip Knightley, the star of British investigative reporting in an era when the Sunday Times still believed in the genre, you did not sell out for something as shoddy as money. There was, in any case, more money in a capitalist homeland than in Soviet Russia, whose moveable pleasures ran a short distance through a dacha, a wife, some vodka and a remorseless bureaucracy.
Le Carré begs to differ from Philby, but being an Englishman, not by much: duty is the more honourable virtue. Once you join a side, you stick to it. This is war. The best soldiers are schoolboys. The finest boy is The Honourable Schoolboy.
Le Carré hit a poor [I can’t get myself to use ‘bad’] patch when the certain uncertainties of the Cold War were destroyed by the defeat of the Soviet Union. The Soviets were a worthy enemy, deserving of legitimate and illegitimate confrontation. Soldiers play to win. Spies play to continue. Victory ends this game, and soldiers retire to rest and recuperate. Spies are lost without a chessboard of knights with guns and bishops with poison and kings with double faces.
It is not easy to find a second enemy in one lifetime, even in a life as long as le Carré’s. He is too astute to take comfort in black and white lines, even when he deals with arms smugglers or terrorists. A Most Wanted Man, perhaps his finest portrait of terrorism, was also A Most Tortured Man, brutalised by his base before being launched into the unknown.
The central genius of le Carré’s superb imagination is of course George Smiley, a child who slipped into seniority without quite negotiating the passage of youth.
The central genius of le Carré’s superb imagination is of course George Smiley, a child who slipped into seniority without quite negotiating the passage of youth. Smiley’s torture was viscerally internal as well as public knowledge, the adultery of his beautiful, aristocratic wife Ann with a man who may or may not have been the most dangerous mole in British history. Persistence, not deception, is the armour of the quality spy, and who can blame Ann for periodically abandoning a social-misfit-bumblebee for the suave self-confidence of a traitor? Smiley is the tinker whose diligence at the sparking machine saves the day, even if he loses the night in the process. The last torture of Smiley is that he can never be sure if his victory was personal revenge or national service.
Dropcap OnE.M. Forster, another Cambridge fixture, famously said that if he had ever to choose between betraying his friend and his country he wished he would have the courage to betray the latter. But that sounds like a literary conceit. One way out might be to toss a coin: after all, as many mistakes have been made in the name of patriotism as in the cause of evil. George the Plod is a natural hero in a plot where no medals are on offer, and the price of failure is either death or, worse, hopeless obscurity. Smiley lives long after Smiley’s People, an omnipresent shadow hovering through the culture of every le Carré book, a constant reprimand to those whose thrills are shaped by thesis and antithesis. The difference between Our Kind of Traitor and Our Kind of Hero is only a matter of luck, isn’t it?
There is music on every page of Traitor, in rhythm and deflation of phrase and cadence, in both the tiny conflicts of an oxymoron and the mighty decisions that sieve the difference between success and failure in life. Gail’s “father, a sweetly useless actor, had died prematurely of alcohol, sixty cigarettes a day and a misplaced passion for his wayward wife. Her mother, an actress but less sweet, had vanished from the family home when Gail was thirteen, and was reputed to be living the simple life on the Costa Brava with a second cameraman”. Not the first, naturally. Such details have little to do with the nudge of the narrative. But this is literature, not a screenplay; irrelevant to the story but essential to the atmosphere. This is the sphere in which le Carré excels. From here, thoughts vaguely masquerading as questions loom: did the West win the Cold War because it was ruthlessly amoral, or did the Soviet Union lose because it was ruthlessly ideological?
The tension of dilemma between character and belief is always fascinating, since both are inconstant, which is what The Constant Gardener discovered. That however might be the one war, located in Africa, between Pious Crusader and Evil Drug Cartel, in which le Carré came dangerously close to taking sides. Even elsewhere, le Carré is not averse to cliche in characterisation. And so the heavy in Our Kind of Traitor is muscular, erect [in a non-sexual way], bald and flaunts a diamond-gold-Rolex. But he also ties his grey tracksuit with a bow at the midriff, so we have been saved from inanity at the last minute. The Big Baddie, Mr Dima, Old Russia manners and New Russia wealth, has probably been designed for the movie that will inevitably be made from this book.
Richard Burton was the Spy who Came in from the Cold, and established a line that was perfected by Alec Guinness as Smiley in the BBC series: grey men who walked across the lonely landscape of white. Until there came a spurt of red, and the protagonist was dead, killed by his own mistake. The destiny of the spy is anonymity, but save John le Carré for literary immortality.