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John le Carre: The biggest espionage writer of all times

  • Published at 01:47 pm December 25th, 2020
John le Carre
Photo: johnlecarre.com

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I can’t remember the time when I read his first book or even which one was the first book. Other than the most recent one, they seem to be all packed in a wintry corner of distant memories swirling in mist almost like the twilight world John le Carré created for his characters.

At first it was the riveting idea of creating fiction and turning it into reality in The Little Drummer Girl more than twenty-five years ago that I was hooked on.

Set in the early 1980s, the Israeli intelligence starts tracking a Palestinian bomb-maker. They can only track down the courier of this elusive bomber and snatch him. They create a fiction around this courier, who is also the younger brother of the bomber, with letters and circumstances suggesting a deep relationship with a struggling but stunning British actor. Charlie, in the meantime, is cajoled by Mossad into playing his lover and coached in tradecraft. Then they wait for the Palestinians to contact her. Being the typical Brit that she is, Charlie becomes the bomb courier and the bomber’s lover.

The plot goes from Bad Godesberg to London to idyllic beaches of Greek islands to Munich’s Olympic village to Palestinian training camps in Lebanon to the European country side. In the process Charlie becomes more sympathetic to the Palestinian cause as does the reader; so when Charlie breaks down as the bomb-maker is shot down, the readers find themselves floating in the twilight world.

In his bid to make every detail authentic, Le Carré had spoken to Israeli generals and reached out to the Palestinian heart. On a visit to Beirut, Le Carré was taken to a building blindfolded and made to wait. A man entered and asked, “Why have you come to see me?” to which le Carré replied, “To put my hand on the Palestinian heart.” Yassir Arafat took the author’s hand and placed it on his chest saying, “It is here, it is here.”

Call for the Dead was a neat little murder mystery where a seemingly absent-minded, badly dressed, foreign-office official finds out that it is not a suicide as suggested by the wife but a murder when he answers a wake-up call for the dead man. No one plans to commit suicide and requests a wake-up call, reasons George Smiley whom le Carré introduces for the first time in this book as “Short, fat, and of a quiet disposition, he appeared to spend a lot of money on really bad clothes, which hung about his squat frame like skin on a shrunken toad.”

I was probably in university and old enough to appreciate this “grown up reply” to Fleming’s ridiculous James Bond. A complete antithesis to Bond, Smiley seems to operate from shadows in a perpetual state of semi-retirement and estrangement from his wife who is presumably with other men. It was not till the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy that Smiley came out as the spymaster eventually luring Karla, the head of KGB and his nemesis, out to the west and defecting in an intricate game of espionage chess.

Although Penguin recommends the almost autobiographical A Perfect Spy as the first read for the beginner, it took me a dozen tries in almost as many years to get past the first 50 pages but once I did, I wished the book did not end. Even the most reluctant literary snobs would admit it was almost literature. But le Carré was hardly at home with the literary circles, nor did he want to be. The master storyteller notably withdrew his name from nominations saying he “doesn’t compete for awards”. As for the book, it provides quite an insight into le Carré’s relationship with his conman father Ronnie Cornwell.

John le Carré was still serving in British intelligence when he started writing but quit soon afterwards. Of course the defection of Kim Philby to Soviet Union blew his cover and he had to be brought back from cold war Germany. Through a career spanning six decades, le Carré was one of the few who did not need to invent communist villains deep in the bowels of Russia even after the Soviet Union collapsed. Mission Song is an eye opener to how western powers continue to ravage Africa. Constant Gardener shows the extent to which big pharma is willing to go for money. Beginning with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, le Carré has explored all the shades of grey in black and white like no other. That was the book which shot him to fame and established him as an authority in the genre. It is perhaps through the MI6 man Alec Leamas that le Carré showed how espionage was morally bankrupt.

There will be no more waiting for his next masterpiece. Perhaps the best espionage writer of all times, Johne le Carre, born David John Moore Cornwell, died on December 12 at 89.


Tanim Ahmed is Special Correspondent, Dhaka Tribune.

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