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My Uncle who came in from the Circus

Figure 1 Photograph by Franck Courtes, Agency VU, Redux

“Our power knows no limits, yet we cannot find food for a starving child, or a home for a refugee. Our knowledge is without measure and we build the weapons that will destroy us. We live on the edge of ourselves, terrified of the darkness within. We have harmed, corrupted and ruined, we have made mistakes and deceived.”John le Carré





When you’ve read enough of a given author, you feel a certain kinship with that writer – like someone familiar as an uncle or a bosom comrade. I feel this way about John le Carré. So, I experienced a deep loss when news of his passing reached me. Le Carré died from pneumonia on December 14, 2020. He was 89. His publisher Curtis Brown CEO John Geller said this in a statement to CBS, “”His like will never be seen again, and his loss will be felt by every book lover, everyone interested in the human condition. We have lost a great figure of English literature, a man of great wit, kindness, humor and intelligence. I have lost a friend, a mentor and an inspiration.” Right on.

His cold war thrillers depicted spies who were less than suave, nor urbane, definitely not the James Bond model feeding the myth of spying as a glamorous romp. The Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as M.I.6., was the “Circus,” agents were “joes,” operations involving seduction were “honeytraps” and agents deeply embedded inside the enemy were “moles,” a word he is credited with bringing into wide use if not inventing it. Real British spies took many of these similes as part of their vocabulary.

But, looking back on my first encounter with le Carré, my acquaintance with his craft was hardly a walk in the park. It’s like going on a blind date with someone difficult – demanding, if not enigmatic; and while wondering if you’ve selected the right restaurant, or the right vintage of wine, you’re doubting whether a second date is called for.

Let me be frank though – it was Richard Burton who got me curious about le Carré, with the movie The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965). In the film, Burton plays Alec Leamas, a British spy sent to East Germany, supposedly to defect, but in fact to sow damaging disinformation about a powerful East German intelligence officer. With so many twists and turns (and an ending which at that time of my viewing I considered too unsatisfactory), and fixated with my binary sense of good vs. evil, I needed to go back, deeper – to the book to fully unravel the rabbit hole of deception and betrayal painted by the plot. At that time, I was more accustomed with tidy fantasy endings and the novel disabused me of this. I got hooked on le Carré after that.

By the way, Graham Greene called this book “the best spy story I have ever read.”  “In its way, it marked a boundary between two eras: the era of God-is-in-our side patriotism, of trust in government and in the morality of the West, and the era of paranoia, of conspiracy theory and suspicion of government, of moral drift,” Stephen Schiff wrote in Vanity Fair in review of the novel. It seemed the secret world of espionage was brought down a few pegs by this quote from the book: “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists, and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt (leader of the East German Secret Service) if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens that they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass that you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.” (Spoken by Leamas the protagonist).

In my desire to know him better, I read his biography (2015) by Adam Sisman. His novels while revealing much of his thoughts about the “secret world” paled in comparison to his life experiences. I am not exaggerating when I believe that every great author undergoes personal tragedies and experience of dysfunctional childhood as matriculation for his art (which makes me think I will remain an unsuccessful novelist as I haven’t suffered enough). He once commented, ““The monsters of our childhood do not fade away, neither are they ever wholly monstrous.” He was 5 years old when his mother Olive abandoned the family (“One night when Ronnie (her husband) was out, she hurriedly packed some clothes – in her honeymoon suitcase bought from Harrods, a reminder of better days, covered in luxurious white hide and lined in pink silk – then slipped out of the house, locking the door behind her”). Their father, Ronnie, a con man, who, according to le Carré, had a “wonderful brain,” but “if there was a bent way of doing something, he took it” (Ronnie even tried to blackmail his famous son asking for £1,000 for his silence concerning his son’s dalliance) became their caregiver, unreliable as it was (“On 17 February 1934, he (Ronnie) was sentenced at the Winchester Assizes to six months’ imprisonment for fraud”).  An excellent student, he graduated from Oxford with a degree in Modern Languages; he spoke French and German like a native. A career as a spy seemed like a natural fit for him. Since he had written under a pseudonym (what the author would call his “cover name”) the only people who knew who the author was were British intelligence, who did not want to blow his cover in Germany when he was starting out as a writer. When he was finally outed as the author, MI6 gave him permission to leave, allowing him to focus on writing full-time. His real name was David John Moore Cornwell.

In our exchanges after the author’s death, my close fraternity brother and fellow 1967 China traveller, Chibu Lagman, concluded that George Smiley, the bespectacled, unhappy but relentless civil servant, appearing in nine of le Carré’s novels (including as a side character in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”), was the fictional John le Carré; because Smiley was le Carré’s most popular character, it was easy to see him in his possible autobiographical inference.

His biographer Adam Sisman notes that though famous, le Carré remains unknown – having “perfected the art of hiding in plain view… one suspects, le Carré enjoys teasing his readers, like a fan dancer, offering tantalizing glimpses but never a clear view of the figure beneath.” As the central hero of le Carré’s works, and like le Carré himself, Smiley is the kind of hero I love: his “strong moral intellect, understanding of human nature, sympathy for human frailty and a capacity for listening” (per Sisman). “George doesn’t alter,” le Carré writes in A Legacy of Spies, his final Smiley novel. “He just gets his composure back. He is a cynical romantic with a terrible domestic life who commits himself to England for reasons he is never quite sure of—a player of the great game, but wise to it. He is an outsider uncomfortable in any social class, but capable of moving through them all. To be English, after all, is to always feel a little bit out of place, even in England.”

Le Carré reveals that Smiley is an “amalgam,” like all his fictional characters, “springing from a much deeper well than their apparent counterparts in life. All in the end, like the poor suspects in my files, remoulded in the writer’s imagination until they are probably closer to his own nature than to anyone else.” (Foreword to the Lamplighter edition of Call for the Dead (1992)). I learned that Smiley was drawn from his knowledge of two close friends (Vivian Green and John Bingham), borrowing some of their traits to portray Smiley: e.g., Bingham’s habit of polishing his spectacles on the end of his tie, or his inconspicuous, unassuming quality, and Green’s silences which punctuated his conversation, and his eccentric dress sense. So, I will respectfully disagree with my mentor and senior Chibu.

His most autobiographical masterpiece remains A Perfect Spy and this is confirmed by many sources (Philip Roth, David Denby, Frank Conroy, etc.). Magnus Pym, the protagonist, is a motherless son whose upbringing was almost identical to his own (le Carré had never been able to forgive his mother for deserting him, left ignorant of women, and distrustful of them). Pym’s father was a fraudster, and from him, he learned about betrayal, becoming an adept double agent (“Betrayal as hope and compensation… betrayal as love”). “In A Perfect Spy he (le Carré) was able to externalize aspects of his past which he had felt extremely uncomfortable… a tremendous catharsis for him,” Sisman points out.

A few critics harbor a prejudice against le Carré, branding him as a “mere spy story writer,” creator of genre novels – a condescending idea that genre novels are innately inferior. Thank God there were people like David Mamet who came to his defence arguing that the greatest novelists writing in English had been “genre writers”: Jane Austen, for instance. Sisman also reasons, “The actions of the intelligence services revealed the true, hidden nature of the state they represented – England’s crumbling ruling class. The Circus was England in miniature, looking back with nostalgia and contemplating the future with foreboding.” “Poor loves,” laments one of le Carré’s character, Connie Sachs, the Circus’s dismissed head of research, “Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. All gone. All taken away.” She is nostalgic for a golden past, of the exploits of courageous young men, not wanting to hear that one of them might have betrayed his country. His novels train a light on the state itself, with its attempt to come to terms with its post-imperial role. In real life, Kim Philby, considered the biggest mole in British intelligence, passed on sensitive information to the Soviets for years. Philby fled to the Soviet Union in 1963, when his involvement in a Soviet spy ring was about to be revealed. The damage Mr. Philby did to British intelligence remains a subject of debate, limited by strict British secrecy laws. But his betrayal and that of his colleagues poisoned relations between British and American intelligence services for many years, with residues that last until today..

“Thematically, le Carré’s true subject is not spying,” the European affairs commentator Timothy Garton Ash wrote in a New Yorker profile in 1999. “It is the endlessly deceptive maze of human relations: the betrayal that is a kind of love, the lie that is a sort of truth, good men serving bad causes and bad men serving good.”

Le Carré believed that the road to the UK leaving the European Union had begun “in the big landed houses of England. That’s where the Brexit fantasy, the nostalgia for the suspicion of your German and your Frenchman and those chaps who weren’t much use in the war, that’s where all that was born.” His disdain for the ruling class was evident; “The privately educated Englishman is the greatest dissembler on earth,” George Smiley says in The Secret Pilgrim. “Nobody will charm you so glibly, disguise his feelings from you better, cover his tracks more skilfully or find it harder to confess to you that he’s been a damn fool.” “Who today can look at the former premier David Cameron, or current Prime Minister Boris Johnson—both the products of Eton and Oxford—and not smile reading these lines?” asked le Carré.

Le Carré declined all British literary awards and refused to accept knighthood. He told Steve Kroft of 60 Minutes he was “suspicious of the literary world that I don’t want its accolades.” And he said being a Commander of the British Empire is what he wanted “least of all.” However, he never lost his love for Germany, its language and its literary heritage. In 2011, he accepted a Goethe Medal, awarded to non-Germans by the Goethe Institute for services to promoting German language and culture – chronicling “the nation’s divided post-war 20th century with his characteristically paradoxical inside perspective of an outsider this was one award he felt able to accept” (New York Times).

In my opinion, a great writer has passed. And I am not just grieving.

By Alfie Kwong


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