When I was 13 I picked up a paperback at a railway station book stall. I still remember, it had a coffee-coloured cover with a photograph of Berlin and the words The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, in bold yellow capital letters. It was written by somebody named John Le Carré. Obviously French, I said to myself.
I bought the book only because of the magic word “spy” in the title. I knew all about spies: they were those heroic, ultra-cool types who were spotted in places like Paris, Istanbul and Jamaica. They drank vodka martinis, drove exotic sports cars, and carried Walther PPK 7.65 pistols concealed in shoulder holsters.
They also got to have sex with some throbbingly desirable woman, usually in the last three-quarters of the book. I knew all this because I was a dedicated James Bond fan, and had read all of his novels. I was now looking forward to reading about this new spy who came in from the cold (whatever that meant).
But when I first flicked through the pages of this book, I felt thoroughly cheated. What was all this dreary rubbish? Page after page about some shabby character named Alec Leamas who does nothing in particular, moving from depressing locations in London to even more depressing locations in East Germany. What kind of spy story was this, anyway?
Where was the action? Where was the lifestyle? Where was the sex? In lieu of the latter, all I could find was the fleeting description of a skinny stripper with a bruise on her thigh in some seedy strip club.
I tossed the book aside, with the contempt it deserved.
The end of adolescence
A few weeks later, on one of those boring, endless, summer-holiday afternoons, with nothing else to read, I picked up the book again, and looked through it tentatively. And before long I was hooked. It was, in some way, the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood.
That is how I got drawn into the world of John Le Carré: not merely just a series of novels, but an entire richly imagined world, like JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth or RK Narayan’s Malgudi. It’s a world populated by a set of distinctive characters – George Smiley, Percy Alleline, Tom Haydon, Toby Esterhase, Peter Guillam, and others – who come to the fore and then recede intriguingly, as the author manipulates their world over the years.
Thus Smiley, who is the protagonist of the first novel, Call For the Dead, recedes into the background, and becomes just a minor character in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold and The Looking Glass War – and, in fact, disappears completely in A Small Town in Germany – before re-emerging in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy to reoccupy the centre space, and then slowly fade out again In The Secret Pilgrim. It is a complex world, and it is sometimes hard to think that Le Carré did not have a master plan in mind before embarking on the series. It’s a world that is, in fact, so complex that David Monaghan wrote a popular guide-book to help readers navigate through its many layers and translucencies.
And it is this complexity that makes Le Carré’s world so engaging: once you are drawn into its mazes, it is impossible to escape. Very often you find yourself compelled to go back and read the books once again, to grasp all of their nuances, to unravel all of their secrets, to savour, once again, the conclusions that are so deliciously inconclusive.
The sights, sounds, smells and characters
Le Carré was, of course, lured into British Intelligence while still an undergraduate at Oxford, and he grew up to become a “spy” (albeit a more minor spy than many people assume). And that is where the authentic sights, sounds, smells and characters of his world come from.
George Smiley, for example, was essentially an amalgam of two people who played an important role in Le Carré’s life, John Bingham, his devious, plotting, counter-plotting boss, and Vivian Green, his erudite tutor at Oxford. Connie Sachs, the living memory of the Circus, was based on a real-life MI5 Russia watcher named Millicent Bagot. The enigmatic Karla was supposedly based on Markus Wolf, the legendary boss of East German Intelligence (although Le Carré denies it). Smiley’s wife, the perfidious Lady Anne, was Le Carré’s own wife, Anne, though her perfidies belonged to Le Carré himself.
Alec Leamas, the protagonist of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold – and thus the character who first made Le Carré famous – had a different kind of genesis. He was based on a man Le Carré saw at London airport one morning, on his way to Berlin. He was wearing a shabby raincoat, and had a haggard, burned-out quality about him. He walked up to the bar, ordered himself a large whisky, and paid for it by pulling out a handful of coins of various different currencies. And then he downed his whisky and walked out into the morning. But in those few, fleeting minutes, Le Carré got a character-squeeze for the anti-hero of his next book, and knew instinctively that he would die at the Berlin Wall.
Leamas was, of course, the very antithesis of the heroic spy, as imagined until then. The anti-Bond. (Indeed, Le Carré buffs will tell you there are clever little Ian Fleming jokes hidden in the George Smiley narrative, for those who know where to look.)
The language of Le Carré’s world
Shoemakers: Document forgers, who provide fake passports and other documents
Lamplighters: Surveillance experts
Scalphunters: Strong-arm agents, who handle activities like kidnapping, burglary, blackmail and assassination.
Pavement artists: Operatives who shadow people in public.
Nuts and Bolts: The engineering department, responsible for espionage hardware and devices.
Housekeepers: The finance department.
Janitors: Operations staff, such as security guards.
Mothers: Secretaries and typists.
Nursery: The espionage training centre.
Many of these terms, invented by Le Carré, were later co-opted by British Intelligence.
Le Carré 2.0
When the Cold War ended, everybody said Le Carré was finished: now what was he going to write about, with the Circus going out of business? But he quickly reinvented himself and launched what one might call Le Carré 2.0.
Even before the Cold War had ended, in fact, Le Carré had begun to branch out into other spaces, as in The Little Drummer Girl, where he wrote about an Israeli spymaster and his quest for a Palestinian terrorist. And now he went on to explore new areas of intrigue from around the world, as if to demonstrate to us that, while everything might have changed, in fact, nothing had really changed.
Thus his new books would be set in the murk of the global arms industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the money-laundering industry, and in the sordid political intrigues of places like Central Asia, South America, Africa and Britain. Each of these new worlds that Le Carré created was as authentic as the earlier world of George Smiley had been, thanks to the meticulous research that he did, spending months on the ground, interviewing insiders – from industry experts to whistle-blowers, from war-lords to mafia bosses – as if he was an investigative journalist, and not a novelist.
And it was during this second phase of his career that he produced some of his finest works, like The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends and A Delicate Truth, quietly reiterating the fact that he is today not merely a great writer of spy fiction, but a great writer of literary fiction.
Indeed, a question that is sometimes asked is, when will Le Carré win a Nobel Prize? Or will he be denied it, as Graham Greene was?
Short stories by a master storyteller
The Pigeon Tunnel, Le Carré’s new book, has been called a memoir, but it’s more like a set of short stories culled from a remarkable life. As a memoir, it is actually somewhat redundant, because just last year, Adam Sisman wrote a definitive 600-plus-page biography of Le Carré, with his full co-operation. So this new book doesn’t tell us very much that we didn’t already know. But, read as a collection of short stories, told by a master story-teller, it holds us spellbound.
One puts down the book with a kind of sadness, however, for one can’t help get the feeling that it could be Le Carré’s swan song. He is, after all, 86 now, and has been writing his bestselling books for over half a century. Sooner rather than later, the inevitable must happen, and Le Carré will, like Alec Leamas, the protagonist of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, finally arrive at a kind of Berlin Wall of his own.
And then, right at the end – I like to imagine – he will, as Leamas did, very fleetingly see a small car smashed between two great lorries, and a couple of small children waving cheerfully through the window. If you’re a Le Carré fan, you will know what I mean.
The Pigeon Tunnel, John le Carré, Penguin Viking.