One of the enduring mysteries — to use an appropriate word — of my literary life is how long it took for me to discover the works of John le Carré. With a childhood in the waning days of the Cold War and adulthood in the 9/11 era, it’s a wonder it took so long for me to fall into his world of spies, bureaucrats and the regular people caught in their webs.
My earliest experience with his storytelling was in the movies. I remember being transfixed by The Constant Gardener in 2005, a tale of pharmaceutical piracy set against the hazy, romantic rememberings of a quiet widower trying to find the truth behind the death of his exuberant, but possibly unfaithful, wife.
It was six years later, though, when the screen made me want to turn back to the page. A critically acclaimed remake of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was released in 2011, a hypnotic story about brilliantly named George Smiley and his quest to find a mole within MI6, or the “Circus.” Calling it a “slow burn” implies a more breakneck pace than it really has. It moves like sap down a tree, with the spaces of quiet meaning just as much as the dialogue; as some critics said at the time, the film’s collection of eyeglasses alone deserves a character sketch. Brooding and intense, Smiley pieces together a sad tale of betrayal that has less of a body count than a mind count — the destruction in le Carré stories is measured more in broken wills than in broken bones.
And that is what really drew me into his world. I’m a sucker for what I call “three-star thrillers,” movies like the Bourne trilogy that have a veneer of respectability but are really just rollicking action films bouncing over a moral landscape. Le Carré was operating in a different way. I’ve now read six of his books, including the classic The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and the loose Karla trilogy, which includes Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.
The trilogy is as effective a treatise on the Cold War as any history book. For hundreds of pages, we follow the grim, fat, cuckolded Smiley, perpetually polishing his glasses on the fat end of his tie, from England to Hong Kong and destinations in between, as he tries to undo Karla’s web in the face of enemies both foreign and domestic. In his office hangs a portrait of Karla, staring at each visitor just as Smiley’s failed attempt to turn the Soviet years ago hangs in the back of his mind.
Neither Smiley, nor Karla, nor anyone else, however, ends up with unmitigated sympathy, however — le Carré is too good of a writer, and too much of a realist, to leave anyone pristine. In each book, we see the compromises, big and small, which are made in the intelligence world, and how even the most good hearted of actors can be undone if a superior has a darker heart. Everyone is at the mercy of someone else’s better angels and worse demons. Unlike a big budget action movie, death is given out sparingly and unpredictably and generally we only see its quiet, disturbed aftermath — a corpse in a park or a ramshackle apartment block, with an intelligence officer now left to figure out if the cost is worth it.
Le Carré has found just as much material to mine in the age of the Global War on Terror (revelations from the past week alone are enough fuel for a few more books). A Most Wanted Man, a 2008 novel soon to be a movie as well, is another entry in a career of showing how our micro worlds can be sacrificed in the name of macro motives. When a Chechen immigrant wanders into Hamburg, his fate isn’t just in the hands of an immigration lawyer or the banker who holds a family account — whole nations take interest. The immigrant is subject to as many forces outside his control as the paper airplanes he constructs in privacy and throws into the air, watching them spin through the air of an empty loft before they hit the floor.
Le Carré, whose real name is David Cornwell, was an intelligence officer himself when he first embarked on a writing career. In an essay (somewhat ironically now) published earlier this year in The Guardian, he describes how the world erred in assuming his 1963 blockbuster The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was more fact than fiction. The very fact the narrative was published, he says, showed how it wasn’t strictly authentic.
“I was the British spy who had come out of the woodwork and told how it really was, and anything I said to the contrary only enforced the myth,” he said. “And since I was writing for a public hooked on Bond and desperate for the antidote, the myth stuck.”
Instead, the power of Spy — and every le Carré book since — is its credible possibility.
“The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves 50 years later,” he writes. “How far can we go in the rightful defense of our western values, without abandoning them along the way?”
Le Carré’s books, then, are like horror stories we read to try and convince ourselves the monsters aren’t real. When you close the book and turn the lights off, however, you can’t help but wonder if there might be too much fact in your fiction and what might be lurking in the shadows and tomorrow’s headlines.
Liam Farrell is the alumni editor of this magazine.