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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 2, New Delhi, December 26 2020

David John Moore Cornwell, better known as... | Sasha Simic

Saturday 26 December 2020


David John Moore Cornwell, better known as the novelist John le Carré, died on the 12 December 2020. He leaves a remarkable body of work. Le Carré came to prominence during the great spy craze of the early sixties. But what distinguished his work from Ian Fleming’s James Bond or Len Deighton’s Harry Palmer was its authenticity, its humanity, and its relevance to reality.

Le Carré was a British spy before he was a writer. As a young man in the late-1940s he put his fluent German to work interrogating escapees from the Soviet bloc. Later, at Oxford, le Carré spied on left-wing students for MI5 and, after graduating, went on to organise surveillance of left-wing militants for MI5 - which included phone-tapping, robbery, and implanting police-spies in their ranks - in the name of fighting “communist subversion”

Le Carrébegan his career as a novelist writing about spies and espionage while working for MI6 in Hamburg and Bonn in the late-50s. His first two novels CALL FOR THE DEAD (1961) and A MURDER OF QUALITY (1962) featured the spy-master George Smiley, a character he would re-visit throughout his career. Smiley — tubby, academic, introverted, and emotionally and sexually clumsy — was the anti-thesis of the spy as superhero. Over the following sixty years Le Carré would flesh out Smiley’s world, his changing place in the hierarchy of the “The Circus” spy-centre and his on-going struggle against his Soviet counterpart Karla.

Le Carré’s spies are all patricians. The working-class hardly appear in his work. They are all products of private education and most of them are deeply unpleasant with a highly developed tendency to cheat and lie. Le Carré taught at Eton and called its graduates “an absolute curse on the earth, leaving that school with a sense of entitlement and overeducated cultural posturing.”

Le Carré spies fought THE LOOKING-GLASS WAR (1965) in which the methods, aims and goals of the opposing sides of The Cold War were indistinguishable.

In THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD (1963) “Control”, the head of MI6, tells his agent Lemas that: "you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s ’policy’ is benevolent, can you now?"

The novel’s depiction of ruling-class cynicism still shocks almost sixty years later.
Le Carré had few illusions in the West.

In TINKER TAYLOR SOLDIER SPY (1974) Smiley tells Karla: "...I’m not going to make any claims about the moral superiority of the West. I’m sure you can see through our values, just as I can see through yours in the East. You and I have spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in each other’s systems."

Smiley proves to be more ruthless than Karla.

The power behind le Carre’s best work came from the tension between the Imperial pretensions of his ruling-class spies and the increasing irrelevance of Britain as a global power: "They’re crazy people, the English..." says the doomed Polish agent Leiser in THE LOOKING-GLASS WAR, "...they think the Thames is the biggest river in the world, you know that? And it’s nothing! Just a little brown stream, you could nearly jump across it in some places!" 

Le Carrealso recognised the limits of spying and after the fall of the USSR admitted that “Spies did not win the cold war. They made absolutely no difference in the long run.”

 Le Carré recognised the danger in the triumphalism of the post-Cold War free-marketeers and he argued “now we have beaten Communism, we have to take on capitalism...”

Le Carré post-Cold War work examined a world shaped by untrammelled neo-liberalism. He didn’t like what he saw. THE NIGHT PORTER (1993) looked at the immorality of the arms trade, THE CONSTANT GARDENER (2003) exposed the crimes of Big Pharma in Africa.

Le Carré was deeply critical of the “war on terror” and joined the huge anti-war march in London in 2003. He was withering about Tony Blair’s role in Bush’s war declaring: “I can’t understand that Blair has an afterlife at all. It seems to me that any politician who takes his country to war under false pretences has committed the ultimate sin."

More recently he frequently condemned both Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.
But there was a limit to le Carré’s radicalism.

In October 2019 he told The Guardian “I’ve always believed, though ironically it’s not the way I’ve voted, (in) compassionate conservatism...”

In that same interview he argued The Labour Party must "shed Corbyn" and what he saw as Labour’s "Leninist element" with its "huge appetite to level society".

One of his last public acts was to add his name to a letter, alongside such reactionaries as Joanna Lumley and Frederick Forsythe, just prior to the 2019 general election accusing the life-long anti-racist Jeremy Corbyn of anti-Semitism.

Nevertheless, socialists should read le Carré’s novels. His best books are powerful examinations of the decline of the UK from Empire into a fifth-rate power and the demotion of the British upper-classes from Imperial masters into the junior partners of the US. Socialist absolutely welcome the decline of British Imperial power but le Carré’s work is powerful because he was a product of the establishment, despised the establishment yet felt the loss of British ruling-class power acutely.

He was a contradictory figure writing about a deeply contradictory world.

Le Carré understood that when it came to the Cold War “The right side lost, but the wrong side won”

He took that contradiction, applied it to genre fiction and made literature of it.

Sasha Simic,

Hackney, London — 19/12/2020

(Sasha Simic is a London based social critic and socialist activist)

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