Carré on spying

John Sutherland

  • A Perfect Spy by John le Carré
    Hodder, 463 pp, £9.95, March 1986, ISBN 0 340 38784 X
  • The Novels of John le Carré by David Monaghan
    Blackwell, 207 pp, £12.50, September 1985, ISBN 0 631 14283 5
  • Taking sides: The Fiction of John le Carré by Tony Barley
    Open University, 175 pp, £20.00, March 1986, ISBN 0 335 15251 1
  • John le Carré by Peter Lewis
    Ungar, 228 pp, £10.95, August 1985, ISBN 0 8044 2243 5
  • A Servant’s Tale by Paula Fox
    Virago, 321 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 86068 702 3
  • A State of Independence by Caryl Phillips
    Faber, 158 pp, £8.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13910 8

John le Carré has patiently established himself over the last twenty-five years as the discriminating reader’s favourite thriller writer. The BBC’s adaptations of the George Smiley trilogy in 1979 and 1982 made him almost overnight a popular author on the Ian Fleming scale, and it can have done no harm that the TV version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy coincided with the Blunt scandal. Now, as a rite of academic canonisation, three critical monographs have been published which respectfully analyse his fiction.

Given the delays in book production, his academic commentators necessarily break off with The Little Drummer Girl (1983), a work which promised interesting transitions. With Smiley’s People (1980), le Carré had consciously ended a major phase of his writing career. As he put it in an interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1983, ‘by the end of the Smiley books I’d gone too far into a private world.’ The Smiley saga ends, it will be remembered, with Karla crossing no man’s land, betrayed into defection by love for his daughter. It is a life’s triumph for Smiley, whose jubilation is typically uncertain: ‘“George, you won,” said Guillam as they walked slowly towards the car. “Did I?” said Smiley. “Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did”.’

The Little Drummer Girl, and the fierce pro-Palestinism of le Carré’s subsequent 1982-83 articles in the Observer on Sharon’s invasion of the Lebanon, suggested he had become a more publicly engaged writer in his maturity (like Graham Greene). But ingenious le Carré watchers (specialists in their own kind of espionage) soon turned up interesting privacies. An article by Norman Moss in the Sunday Telegraph, for instance, disclosed that the little drummer girl Charlie was at least in part based on le Carré’s half-sister Charlotte Cornwell.

A Perfect Spy doubles back to unfold more of le Carré’s private world than any of his previous novels. It is the least political and most personal work the author has published. More particularly, this novel treats the father-son relationship with direct relevance to le Carré’s own past. In various interviews (notably one with Miriam Gross in February 1980) le Carré has divulged the major outline of his childhood, and has given some picture of his extraordinary parent Ronnie Cornwell. According to le Carré, Ronnie was ‘a Micawber character who always managed to spend twice as much as he earned – or twice as much as he obtained’. His wife soon deserted him, leaving the Cornwell sons in his dubious custody. On one terrible occasion Ronnie was sent to prison for fraud. Nonetheless, the family lived in the ‘style of millionaire paupers’, and care was taken to give the young David Cornwell the best of public school educations, and a thorough grounding in the codes of upper-class Englishness. The son of a crook, Cornwell was brought up a gent. By his own account, the young Cornwell, subjected to these strange contradictions, ‘became extremely secretive, and began to think that I was, so to speak, born into an occupied territory’. In this lost childhood the spy (or at least the man preoccupied with spying) was formed. And as with T.E. Lawrence, shameful paternity resurfaced in later life as an obsession with patriotism.

A Perfect Spy is a long and tortuous suicide note put together in extremis by the hero, Magnus Pym. The Who’s Who entries of David John Moore Cornwell and Pym would match significantly. Both were born in 1931 and educated at a public school which they left early to study German in Berne. Both got firsts in modern languages at Oxford and went into the Foreign Office as a cover for intelligence work. It is at this point that fictional divergences take over. Cornwell (according to one published source) worked for MI6 in Germany, from 1960 to 64. Pym, we gather, is a senior spymaster, who has successfully operated a Czech network since the Fifties. This is the first layer of deception in his life. At a deeper level (where deception becomes treachery), Pym is a defector in place, a mole. At the deepest level (where treachery becomes loyalty to principles higher than country), Pym is a ‘good man’.

The beginning of the novel finds Pym in desperate straits. Recruited into a world of gentleman spies, he has survived into the age of technological surveillance and valueless intelligence-gathering. The gigantic American computer at Langley has detected suspicious discrepancies in his pattern. Loyal superiors can cover for him no longer. Pym makes a run for it. Throwing elaborate false scents and taking the firm’s ‘burnbox’ with him, he goes to earth. He is hunted by his ‘deceived protector’, Jack Brotherhood (le Carré loves a resonant name). The burnbox is so called because it will combust on command. It contains top secrets and the station gun: will Magnus use the one treacherously to defect, or the other to end things honourably? While this question comes to issue, Magnus takes refuge in his safe house, in the West Country. (Cornwell, incidentally, was born in this region and still has one of his homes there – perhaps it is where he feels safest.) To his adoring and ignorant landlady Pym is Mr Canterbury, a civil servant. Momentarily out of the cold (though Brotherhood is all the while closing in), Pym writes his life story, addressed in the form of a long letter to his son Tom.

The main element in Pym’s confessions is not, it emerges, his seamy career in espionage, but the relationship with his own father Richard (‘Rick’), who has just died. In addition to his employer’s top secrets, Magnus has another box with him. This is his father’s old green filing-cabinet, which at last he has prised open. Rick Pym was, like Cornwell’s father, a confidence man whose frauds took him to prison. Nevertheless he brought Magnus up a proper English gentleman, paying for public school and Oxford with bouncing cheques and instilling by example the great lesson of ‘the importance of a respectable appearance’.

For his son Tom (and for himself as Rick’s son) Magnus reconstructs his father’s intricate roguery. The tone is predominantly that of comedy shot through with mortification. Embellishing the prisonhood theme, Magnus invents for his school friends a patriotic end for his father, tortured to death by the Gestapo. Enter Rick to his son’s discomfiture, the picture of a spiv ‘accompanied by two jockeys, a box of nectarines and a brand new mother with a feather in her hat’. Gradually, Pym penetrates through the lovable naughtiness to the secret rottenness at the core of his father’s life – the betrayal of a trusting cripple, who loses his life savings. This is a crime that cannot be forgiven.

Rick’s ambition is that his son will be Lord Chief Justice – ‘handing down the sentences that had once been handed down to Rick in the days we never owned to’. In fact, Magnus becomes not a dispenser of justice but a virtuoso of dishonesty. In this he remains his father’s son. Working for the firm legitimises, even consecrates, the kind of deception for which Rick went to jail. Returning to his wife in suspicious circumstances, unshaven and hungover, Magnus asks:

‘Which would you rather I told you? I was carousing with a whore or I’ve got problems with a Joe [agent]?’

‘Why don’t you just tell me the truth?’

The suggestion amused him. Not cruelly or cynically. Merely he received it with the rueful indulgence that he would show towards Tom when he came through with one of his solutions for ending world poverty or the arms race.

But Magnus will not go to prison for his frauds. With normal luck, he should get a knighthood.

Familiar questions form over le Carré’s narrative. Are spies cheap crooks, or patriots? Are double agents traitors, or are they E.M. Forster’s liberal heroes who would betray country before a friend? What is it to be a ‘perfect spy’? An answer of sorts is supplied at the crucial moment in 1954 when Magnus is turned by his Communist opposite number, code-named Poppy:

‘You have loyalty and affection. But to what? To whom? ... All you need is a cause. I have it ... All the junk that made you what you are: the privileges, the snobbery, the hypocrisy, the churches, the schools, the fathers, the class systems, the historical lies, the little lords of the countryside, the little lords of big business, and all the greedy wars that result from them, we are sweeping that away for ever. For your sake. Because we are making a society that will never produce such sad little fellows as Magnus.’

The perfect spy is the one who secretly devotes himself to destroying the system that has made spies such as himself. It’s a typically looking-glass definition. And Magnus is seduced, not by the conventional sexual Mata Hari, but by ‘Poppy’ – that is, Pop, the real father who is not a friend and who can invest an otherwise meaningless life with purpose, who can take treachery and make it a higher patriotism.

England made me is the familiar theme of A Perfect Spy. But what, finally, do le Carré and his surrogate Pym make of England and all its ‘junk’? It is one of the perversities of this book that for all its obsolete decay, England is loved and admired. The country must be destroyed, but the act will be done in the remorseful and masochistic way that one puts down a loved animal – as Jack Brotherhood kills his old and sick labrador bitch, wrapping her in ‘his favourite tweed jacket’ before shooting her in the back of the head, smashing the spinal cord at the nape. One destroys, not because one hates, but because one loves. The image recurs to Jack, as he hunts down Magnus, whom he loves. And the image equally applies to what Magnus and other perfect spies are doing to the England they love.

Le Carré modestly insists that he is doing nothing new in fiction, but has merely reintroduced the realistic spy thriller to a public which had forgotten its existence. This may be true. But A Perfect Spy seems to me to add new twists to the topical theme of British treason and the psychology of justified traitors. And insofar as le Carré’s fiction makes spies of his readers, this is the closest that he’s hitherto permitted access to the intimately formative years of his childhood.

David Monaghan, writing from Canada, conceives le Carré a Condition of England novelist, the laureate of a country physically, ideologically and spiritually clapped-out. Tony Barley reads le Carré ‘for ideology’. He discerns in the novels’ obsessive play with loyalty and treachery a classic depiction of the British liberal dilemma: ‘Fearing the definition and cost that taking sides entails, the liberal is most comfortable in attempting to choose all the possible alternatives – both West and East, neutrality and commitment, rigour and flabbiness, work and home, the public and the personal ... le Carré’s narratives reproduce this phenomenon and their stubborn repetitions demonstrate simply the authenticity of the writer’s grasp of it.’ It is not quite clear whether Barley sees le Carré as a representative or as a critic of wishy-washy liberalism. Lewis’s first chapter speculates shrewdly on why Cornwell should call himself le Carré and where the name comes from. The author once claimed it was taken from a London shop front he happened to pass on a bus. Subsequently he admitted he’d told so many lies on the subject that he really couldn’t remember where the pen-name originated. Lewis notes that while carré in French bears many a further meaning, ‘the English equivalent of the name is John the Square, with all the connotations of old-fashioned fuddy-duddiness that the word now evokes.’ Furthermore, Lewis turns up a couple of spies (Mathilde Carré, Henri le Caron) who may have inspired the odd pseudonym. It all confirms that le Carré is a writer who gives nothing away without a struggle. Monaghan says ‘le Carré has taught his whippets, Mach II and Whisper, to growl on hearing the word “critic”.’ But it’s hard to believe that even he will resent the intelligent and deferential introductions to his fiction which these commentaries offer.

Paula Fox is a writer now in her sixties who is best-known for her children’s stories, where she has portrayed the condition of childhood loneliness. She has been particularly drawn to the marginal state where the solitary world of the child borders on pure and self-sufficient autism. In ‘Maurice’s Room’, a boy can only communicate with the world by the exotic clutter he accumulates in his room. When his family move to the country, they rehabilitate Maurice by finding him a barn, as rich in rural clutter. The child’s world is tightly circumscribed, but nevertheless it can furnish vast private spaces. And it is the achievement of Fox’s children’s books to suggest that, materially cramped though it is, the child’s life is actually fuller than the grown-up’s.

Fox’s latest book is for and about adults. But it is called A Servant’s Story – not, as it might insensitively have been, ‘A Woman’s History’. Like children and animals, the heroine of this work does not presume to any significance. She is born on the small Carib-island of San Pedro, the illegitimate Luisa Sanchez. Later she becomes legitimate Luisa de la Cueva. Luisa’s mother is a servant, the daughter of a servant. Her father belongs to the colonial land-owning class, but recklessly throws away his caste privileges. Luisa’s race is as mixed as her family origins: she is part Spanish, part Negro, part Indian, with a hint of Chinese about the eyes. Revolution threatens San Pedro, and the family move to New York where, buried in the slums, they lose even the second-hand prestige of the de la Cueva name. Isabel’s mother dies, she breaks with her father and becomes a servant. She marries and for a few years is Mrs Luisa Greer. Then she divorces her cold, blond-haired husband and again takes up maid’s work to support herself and her son. Over the years Luisa survives, even achieving a modest level of comfort and respectability. And in her fifties she returns as a tourist to her native San Pedro. It is now a seedy American protectorate. The yankee colonialists’ plastic factory has taken over from the Spanish colonialists’ sugar plantations. There is nothing left there for her and she returns to America, and drudgery.

Viewed objectively, Luisa’s life is one of painful deprivation and confusion. But that is not how the novel views it. Told autobiographically, Luisa’s tale stresses her minor but real fulfilments. Three things sustain her: the Edenic childhood relationship with Nana her maternal grandmother, her chosen role as servant, and the few friendships with women that her restricted life affords. Nana equips Luisa for later experience with wise ‘stories’. One about calves descended by ladder to work in cliffside fields foreshadows the child’s destiny as beast of burden:

Once they’re there, they can never be brought up again. The oxen don’t remain calves any more than you’ll remain a child. They grow too big, and the men can’t carry them back up the ladders. They live and die on those small plots of land at the foot of the mountains.

In her after-life, Luisa embraces servitude, because she understands that a servant is ‘an older child’. She manages to preserve a saving remnant of the magical domain of childhood. It’s not much of a bargain, but it’s the best life offers her.

Virago is a publisher with a proclaimed feminist programme. And, superficially, A Servant’s Tale resembles Alice Walker’s more straightforwardly angry The Color Purple. A more politically purposeful writer than Fox could find any number of causes in Luisa’s multiply exploited life. But A Servant’s Tale declines to protest. Rather it celebrates the privileges to be found within apparent deprivation. And it is written with a sparse lyricism which is extraordinarily affecting.

Caryl Phillips was born in St Kitts in 1958. In the same year, his family came to England where he has been brought up. A State of Independence is his second novel and is set (with a little precautionary evasion as to names) in his native island, on the eve of its independence in June 1983. In the largest sense, Phillips’s novel deals with the contradictions inherent in being a ‘British West Indian’. His hero, Bertram Francis, is 30 years old. Twenty years before, he won the island scholarship and went to England. But he did not make good. Half his life has slipped away without his noticing. Now he wants to return.

Home, he discovers, is not home. His family has disintegrated, his old friends still resent his scholarship triumph. Above all, he is foreign. The Britishness which he thinks he can leave at Heathrow comes between him and his origins. ‘You must realise,’ he is told, ‘that we living State-side now. We living under the eagle and maybe you don’t think that is good but your England never do us a damn thing except take, take, take.’ One of the things ‘your England’ has taken is Bertram’s identity: but he gets no compensation for that. His will be the independence of the eternally displaced person. The end of the novel finds him walking aimlessly towards his mother’s house, while above his head are strung the wires that will bring ‘the first cable television pictures, live and direct, from the United States’. A State of Independence is less a narrative than an extended situation analysis of the national tensions of post-imperialism. It is both a promising and an accomplished work.