A rackety childhood taught John le Carré to master both spying and writing, argues Jay Elwesby Jay Elwes / November 12, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in December 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
After the Berlin wall came down, interviewers began to ask John le Carré whether the end of the Soviet Union had robbed him of his subject matter. The question irritated him, because it implied he was only capable of producing spy thrillers, derivative novels little better than police procedurals.
But his questioners had a point. The novels le Carré wrote in the 1990s were not his best. His Cold War writing had been charged with the urgent paranoia of the time, and by the lingering suspicion that the black and white opposition of east versus west was in fact a much greyer affair. Le Carré’s exploration of this moral landscape was perhaps his greatest achievement, but when the nuances of the Cold War vanished, it led to a corresponding loss of nuance in his writing.
Le Carré’s summary of the Cold War—“the right people lost but the wrong people won”—is a nice line and one that seems to have led him to the conclusion that, with the Soviets gone, the real enemy now was corporate culture and by association the United States. In the books of the late-1990s and early-2000s—The Tailor of Panama, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, A Most Wanted Man—the earlier subtleties fell away. The US and big business were repeatedly portrayed as sinister and a new shrill tone emerged that diminished his writing.
Yet his choice of subject matter could be startlingly prescient. The publication of Our Game (1995), which dealt with separatists in the Caucasus, coincided with the climax of the first Chechen war. His most recent novel, A Delicate Truth, tells the story of a disillusioned civil servant who leaks a cache of government secrets. The book was published in April 2013, just a month before Edward Snowden, a former employee of the US National Security Agency, boarded a plane for Hong Kong.