John le Carré and the art of betrayal

The novelist was fascinated by the traitor’s bargains and self-deceptions

December 16, 2020
John le Carré: in his fictional world every gesture is shadowed with meaning Credit:  Photo: Christian Charisius/dpa/PA Images
John le Carré: in his fictional world every gesture is shadowed with meaning Credit: Photo: Christian Charisius/dpa/PA Images

Towards the end of John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, a Czech spy called Axel—alias Poppy—chides the British double agent he is running. On entering Czechoslovakia, why did he use his real name? “They said I would be better being me,” replies Magnus Pym, “they call it natural cover.” Axel is angry—or at least seems to be. In Le Carré’s world every gesture has a shadow meaning. “Have you no reality at all, Sir Magnus?” he demands, using his semi-affectionate nickname for the Englishman. By the end of this masterly interview, one of many in Le Carré’s fiction, Pym is so desperate not to disappoint Axel, so keen to gain the approval of a man he had in an earlier life betrayed, that he agrees to get him the crown jewels: British and American secrets. And the reader is convinced, almost, that he’s doing the right thing.

Le Carré, who died on Saturday aged 89, was fascinated by the traitor’s bargains and self-deceptions. The way pledging loyalty to the best the other side has to offer—in this case Axel, or in the Smiley trilogy the Russian spymaster Karla—can feel more like a homecoming than treason. Or how hard it is to betray yourself, when there is no secure self to betray. The mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not an ideologically committed Communist; rather, he enjoys consorting with an equal in Russia and tricking the fools in the Circus. Most of all spying for both sides means he never need repress his multiple personalities—natural covers, you could call them. The “Karla knot” that Le Carré creates is far too elaborate to be a realistic piece of spy craft. But then for all the convincing jargon he invented—“mole” and “honey trap”—Le Carré’s spy novels aim for metaphorical truth, not strict accuracy. His betrayers are knots themselves who must be untied by a Smiley, or in the case of Magnus Pym, the double-crosser himself.

Kim Philby was a useful model. According to rumour, Philby gave David Cornwell’s name to the Russians and thus ruined his espionage career. (Le Carré is Cornwell’s pseudonym—or perhaps it’s the other way round.) The same year Philby defected, 1963, Le Carré published his hugely successful third novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and from then on it was impossible for him to play both sides. He resigned from the service in 1964. When he came to fictionalise Philby 10 years later in Tinker Tailor, there was anger as well as fascination. When le Carré visited Russia in 1987, he reportedly told a friend that he would “dearly love” to meet Philby, “for zoological purposes, of course!” Later Le Carré told a journalist that he refused the meeting on principle: “I couldn’t possibly have shook his hand,” he said, “It was drenched in blood.” Both accounts are likely true.

Tinker Tailor is a deeply pleasurable detective story, complete with a reliable moral centre in the rotund shape of Smiley. In A Perfect Spy the traitor is the (anti-)hero making it a deeper and more discomfiting achievement. Formally, it is suitably inventive: a contemporary narrative starts with Magnus’s disappearance and the efforts of his recruiter at MI6 Jack Brotherhood—a tough-guy version of Smiley—to track him down. Interleaved is a memoir by Pym, which drifts between the first and the third person, telling us the truth about his rackety childhood with his conman father Rick. (The TV version turns it into a more neatly linear story, though it’s still worth watching for Ray McAnally’s delicious Rick.) Le Carré gives Magnus his own childhood. Rick is closely based on his father Ronnie, associate of the Krays, charmer and seducer, who spent other people’s money giving his son David the right accent, setting him up for a life inside the establishment. In a memoir of his father from 2002, Le Carré wrote that he often fantasised about murdering him. “Probably it is no more than my exasperation that I could absolutely never pin him down.” When his son scored a success with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Ronnie appointed himself his adviser and was given the VIP treatment at a Berlin studio including, Le Carré speculates, “a starlet or two.”

Like Philby, “Ronnie wrecked as he created.” And no matter how much he admired his father’s craft, Le Carré could not forget “his victims.” In A Perfect Spy, Magnus listens to an Irish widow complain that he swindled her husband and then—in part of the story Magnus cannot bear to hear—seduced her. Sexual betrayal has always overlapped with treachery in Le Carré’s works. In Tinker Tailor, the mole makes it known he is Ann’s lover, so her husband Smiley won’t see him straight. There is also Jim Prideaux, the agent sent into a trap by the mole, who was his lover at Oxford. Prideaux, like Smiley, guesses the identity of the guilty man. But still he tries to save him.

Why do known betrayers retain the loyalty of those they have deceived? Le Carré’s novels show that the human urge to trust is very powerful. Each betrayal is, from another point of view, a kind of loyalty. And yet perhaps there is no clear explanation. “Sometimes, Tom, we have to do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions, not answers,” writes Magnus Pym to his son in A Perfect Spy. Magnus knows how to become the person others want him to be. That is a great quality in a double agent, and also a writer. Less so in a friend or a husband or a loyal servant of the crown. Men like Ronnie and Philby were more than Le Carré’s subjects. They made him. On the day he joined MI5, he was asked by the head of personnel, fishing for a confession perhaps, whether he had forgiven his father. “Oh, long ago, sir,” he replied, “with Ronnie’s angelic smile.”