Guest post by Sackcloth & Ashes
At the conclusion of John le Carre’s 1974 spy-thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy the donnish spook George Smiley confronts ‘Gerald’, the Soviet mole within British intelligence (in case anyone has yet to read the novel or see the TV series or 2011 film, I won’t name ‘Gerald’ immediately so as to avoid a spoiler). ‘Gerald’ is now in custody, having been exposed as a traitor after an investigation by Smiley, and during the course of their conversation the latter asks him why he became an agent for ‘Moscow Centre’. ‘Gerald’ responds with a self-serving and extended diatribe about American imperialism, and Britain’s disgraceful subservience to it, and le Carre writes that ‘[with] much of it Smiley might in other circumstances have agreed: it was the tone, rather than the music, which alienated him’.
It is this quote that describes my feelings when I confront le Carre’s more recent works, or indeed TV or film adaptations such as the recent version of The Night Manager (published in 1993; now brought to our screens by the Beeb).
Frederick Raphael’s review of A Delicate Truth (2013) was one of the very few to point out how bad le Carre’s writing had become. Nick Cohen has now provided a scathing response to the dramatisation of The Night Manager, which accuses le Carre of moral cowardice insofar as he picks on easy targets for his villains, and also of presenting viewers with a clichéd view of the world which presents the British and US intelligence establishments as the sole source of evil. The adaptation of The Night Manager has le Carre’s approval, so in this case Cohen’s philippic is directed at the right target.
Cohen’s charges against le Carre are best borne in mind when one considers his disgraceful response (along with other supposedly enlightened defenders of liberty and free speech) to the Rushdie affair, but it is also fair to point out that le Carre is also trading on past glories, while presenting an image of the intelligence world which is every bit as one-dimensional and as trite as the Ian Fleming school of espionage fiction that he affects to despise.
The first episode of The Night Manager begins in Cairo in 2011, when the hero Jonathan Pine discovers that the Mubarak regime is planning to crush the Egyptian version of the Arab Spring with the aid of a British arms dealer, Richard Roper, who is himself abetted by an SIS which he effectively owns. I found myself marvelling at the sight of Pine squinting at an inventory of arms provided by Roper, with items helpfully labelled as ‘nerve agent’, Eurofighters and Trident missiles (the latter offering a somewhat excessive, if perhaps decisive, solution to the problem of counter-revolutionary crowd control). Afterwards I found myself reflecting on what I’d seen, and feeling a bit sickened.
A contemporary thriller with pretensions to accuracy and relevance could indeed run with a story featuring an Arab despotism which was crushing a popular revolution with utter barbarity (including the use of Sarin gas), whilst being armed to the teeth by unscrupulous governments and their proxies and secret services. But it seems that le Carre’s world cannot incorporate a scenario involving Syria, the Assad regime, or its backers in Tehran and Moscow, along with the GRU, Hezbollah and the Qods Force. I nonetheless persisted for at least two more episodes, largely due to the efforts of Tom Hiddleston, Hugh Laurie, Olivia Colman, David Harewood, Tom Hollander, Elizabeth Debicki, and the rest of the cast. But then I gave up, because I felt that The Night Manager was essentially Frederick Forsyth for Guardian readers. It’s the same feeling that I’ve had from picking up any of his post-9/11 novels.
Some of you may think that it’s le Carre’s politics that are making me uncomfortable; that I want tub-thumping, jingoistic tales of derring-do. If I did, I’d stick with Forsyth or Stephen Leather, and I wouldn’t pay any credit at all to le Carre’s credentials as a writer. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1964), The Looking Glass War (1965) and Tinker Tailor all portrayed British spooks as being either incompetent, or callously indifferent to the lives of agents or allies sacrificed as part of the job. The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) castigated US military intervention in South East Asia, and also provided an unflattering image of Britain as a decayed imperial power in hock to its masters in Washington DC (a portrayal that le Carre would keep revisiting in subsequent works). A Perfect Spy (1986) was written in a manner calculated to encourage the reader to empathise with the main character, an SIS officer who is actually a spy for the Communist Czechoslovak StB. The Russia House (1989) suggested that US military hawks – and their minions in Whitehall – had a vested interest in denigrating glasnost and perestroika, as the end of the Cold War would lead to their budgets being cut.
I enjoyed these novels, because they were well-written and carefully plotted, and because I found the characters plausible. But to quote le Carre again, it’s the tone, not the music, that’s the problem with his more recent work. Martin Morgan has quipped that the fall of the Berlin Wall led to le Carre’s ‘entertaining descent into student politics’, but it is probably better to date this trend – and its impact on his writing – from 9/11. Since then we have been treated to a series of his novels which have been one-dimensional and repetitive. As Cohen puts it:
[It] is easy to agree with the conclusion of Private Eye’s critic, who said le Carre had become “his own tribute band”. You know now how his books will go. There is a decent Englishman. He comes across skulduggery. He is persuaded to fight it by an honest spy, who teaches him tradecraft, but instead finds he must fight Western corporations and governments whose cynicism knows no limits.
There is a second problem as well, which should concern any reader or viewer impressed by the supposed ‘veracity’ of le Carre’s work. As scathing as Tinker Tailor was about the ‘Circus’, the reader is left in no doubt as to the ruthlessness and inhumanity of ‘Karla’, Smiley’s nemesis in Moscow Centre. Smiley’s People (1980) featured a sub-plot in which a Russian émigré in Paris, Madame Ostrakova, is obliged to collaborate with the KGB in requesting asylum for the daughter she was forced to abandon in the USSR, only to find that her hopes for a reunion are cruelly dashed. The Russia House also portrayed the horrors of Soviet rule and its humanitarian cost.
Even in the post-Cold War era Our Game (1995) reflected the horrors of the Chechen wars, providing a scathing account of Russian brutality towards the peoples of the North Caucasus. Single and Single (1999) actually conceded that the British secret services may being doing necessary work in fighting the ‘Hydra’ of narcotics, arms trafficking and international terrorism. As poorly written as it was, Our Kind of Traitor (2010) warned of the poisonous effect of Russian oligarch money in the UK financial system; a warning demonstrated when Russia invaded Ukraine, and the Coalition government’s first thought was to make sure the pro-Putin billionaires didn’t pull their money out of our banks.
But increasingly, the message from le Carre has been that we have no enemies, only the Anglo-American spooks and their shadowy masters. From Absolute Friends (2003) to A Delicate Truth, the message from le Carre’s work is that movements like al-Qaeda and Daesh do not exist; they are all phantoms conjured up by militaristic Yank neocons and their subservient British underlings, in order to uphold US hegemony. Like John Pilger (credited in the acknowledgements of Absolute Friends), when we read le Carre’s more recent novels or see any of his adaptations, we are entering a world of reverse chauvinism, where everything is our fault, and nothing evil happens without the powers-that-be in Whitehall and Washington DC being behind it.
At a time when Putin is threatening Russia’s neighbours, when hundreds of thousands of Syrians are either being slaughtered or driven into exile, when murderous fanatics bring bloodshed to the streets of Paris and Brussels, when Nigerian girls are kidnapped en masse, and when Iraqi women are forced at gunpoint to become sex slaves because of their religion, the world of le Carre becomes as obsolete and as absurd as that of ‘Sapper’ or Sax Rohmer. The rot set in at whatever point in his life le Carre decided that his writing would be guided by the spirit of Bill Haydon rather than Smiley.