Why John le Carré is still important

Some fifteen years ago or so, I remember turning the final page of John Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold as my train rumbled its way to the end of Platform 9 at King Cross station on an autumnal Saturday evening. The story had a visceral, immersive effect, much more akin to watching a film at the cinema than reading a novel. As I recall, I had bought the book at the late, lamented, Borders bookshop in Cambridge that day and read the whole thing cover to cover. I mistrust my recollections somewhat (did I really read it in just one day? Was the train journey really timed so precisely to the length of the book? Was it really October? Can I be sure?) but the impact of the book is indubitable. I had already read some of Le Carré’s later works, Our Game and The Constant Gardner, and I can’t remember now whether I had already read his great trilogy, Tinker Tailor, et al but I certainly have since. They are, I believe, the greatest British literary work of the later twentieth century because the capture the key question that has dominated and continues to dominate British cultural life. 

The question that has hovered over Le Carré’s work is whether it is ‘genre’, ie spy thrillers, or true literature. I would, without hesitation, place Le Carré’s finest works in the latter category. For Le Carré intuited that contained within the labyrinthine corridors of his old trade, espionage, lay the central contrast of his time. Betrayal and loyalty. Le Carré’s greatest achievement, his trilogy, Tinker Tailor etc explores the question, what is loyalty and what should we be loyal to? 

Le Carré knew about betrayal, his mother abandoned him as a five year old, his Father was a con man and  his career in the field with MI6 was ended when it became clear that our greatest traitor, Kim Philby, had handed his name to the Soviets. He knew that Philby’s betrayal was not simply one clever chess move in the great game of espionage, but a heinous act that led to the death of hundreds of innocents. Hence his laudable refusal to meet Philby, unlike, say, Philby’s contemporary and friend Graham Greene. Neither would he meet the East German spymaster Markus Wolf, often, falsely, claimed as the inspiration for Smiley’s adversary Karla. ‘”I think that Markus Wolf and his kind knew better than anyone, because of the way they were placed, what a foul little regime they were serving,” said he said. “I think they are thoroughly guilty men and they should slink away in disgrace.” Le Carré’s possessed, in this regard at least, a moral seriousness (a quality lacking in the recent film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, which verges on pastiche). He refused to accept that the East and West were moral equivalents and, therefore, that the betrayal committed by Philby and his own fictional mole, were acts of grave treachery.

Yet, Le Carré perceived that with that conviction came an obligation. If Britain was to command our loyalty, then it must be better, greater, than its opponents. Was it? Is it? This he unravels beautifully in Smiley’s People. George Smiley finally gets the upper hand over his counterpart, Karla, in Moscow Centre. But how? By exploiting his love for his daughter. It is pyrrhic victory. Just as Smiley defeats his enemy, he fears he has become his mirror image and the whole reason for the battle has been lost. Le Carré’s questions still resonate long after Cold War has been won. What claims do our country, our culture, our civilisation, have over us? Can we be proud to be British when Britain’s history is so soaked with blood? Loyalty is an inescapable element of human life and the moral tension Le Carré identifies gives his work a piercing, quality.

In his later works, his novels lost the balance of loyalty and anguished critique that gave his great novels their tautness and became straightforward condemnations of what he saw were the evils of the world; whether they be pharmaceutical companies, or the War on Terror, or Brexit. What Le Carré gained in moral clarity, he lost in moral complexity. His later work lacks the bite and the taut balance of moral imperatives that made his great novels so incisive. Nevertheless, his last two novels (will there be others published posthumously?) are still well-told, readable and remarkable output for a man in his late eighties. His final book, Agent Running In the Field, contains a telling moment. Like Tinker, Tailor it involves the betrayal of the British state. Yet, this time, the betrayal is not culpable but understandable, and the central character abets, rather than exposes, the betrayer. Le Carré implies that post-Brexit Britain, unlike the Britain that Philby betrayed, is no longer worthy of his, or our, loyalty. 

This, it seems to me, a pressing question. What is the moral claim of our nation upon us? Do we have a moral obligation to be patriotic or is such a sentiment a mere prelude to bigotry? For Christians, the things that calls our loyalty into question may not be Brexit (though for some it may), but the ongoing shift of the British state away from Christian principles. In such a time, where should our loyalties lie? These are complex questions that require deep reflection. What Le Carré documents in his great works is that such questions are answered within a knot of the tangled aspects of our identity: our families, marriages, friends, politics and nationalities are all caught up in asking to whom or to what we will be ultimately be loyal. Even on the sad occasion of his passing, the questions John Le Carré posed are as urgent as ever. 

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