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What a writer this man is!

By B S Prakash
September 27, 2016 12:38 IST
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'One of his most famous scenes is set in a prison in Delhi where the British try to subvert Karla, the legendary Soviet spy who is being transferred back to Moscow and is being temporarily detained by the Indian agencies.'
Ambassador B S Prakash salutes John le Carre.

John le Carre

IMAGE: John le Carre addresses the media at the film festival in Berlin, February 11, 2001, where British director John Boorman's film The Tailor of Panama, based on le Carre's novel, was screened. Photograph: Reuters


At 85 and with his 25th book, John le Carre continues to create a buzz.

Millions of his fans, and I am certainly one, are enthusing over his memoirs, The Pigeon Tunnel that was published recently and is already a publishing sensation with reviews by celebrated critics, recording of excerpts of his previous books by major actors and special spreads in the press.

John le Carre -- the pen name which David John Moore Cornwall, the English writer assumed in 1961 -- is a famous name like P G Wodehouse, Agatha Christie or in recent times J K Rowling. The fiction reading class world over knows him, but unlike the other three mentioned, lesser numbers are likely to have read him, and even fewer some of his recent novels.

Loyal fans are often annoyed by some familiar clichés about his writing.

First, many identify him as a novelist of the spy genre and as the writer of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. True enough: This novel set in Berlin in 1963 made him famous and rich, but for the real connoisseur to call his novels mere spy thrillers is like seeing Jane Austen's novels as chick lit or Dostovesky's immortal Crime and Punishment as a crime story!

It is to miss the depth, the complexity, and the literary craft that characterises the writing, going beyond the genre.

The second fallacy is to believe that le Carre lost his theme and plot with the end of the Cold War and therefore that he is dated.

True, he had created an entire oeuvre, including a beguiling atmosphere of intrigue, a distinctive lingo, and enduring characters like Smiley in his novels of the Cold War period, each a classic like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley's People, The Honorable Schoolboy and others.

Did he lose his framework and content in 1991 with the end of the Soviet Union? Not at all. On the contrary, he should be credited with anticipating the impending end of the Cold War, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the resulting chaos in the initial years in Russia and the confusion of the new conflicts in the new Central Asian Republics -- all this in his novels, almost one a year, in the decade from 1989.

Later as the strivings and the grasping of the world became coloured more by greed, corruption and privatised violence by mercenaries or non-State actors, the motives for deceit, intrigue and spying also changed in his novels.

Hence, his nine novels since 1988 are set in places like Kenya, the Congo, Panama, Turkey, Georgia, Ingushetia, in parts of the world with divergent maladies and discontents.

John le Carre with Gary Oldman

IMAGE: John le Carre, left, with actor Gary Oldman, who plays George Smiley, arguably le Carre's most memorable character, in the film, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.


What makes John le Carre's novels so special that great writers over the decades ranging from Graham Greene to Philip Roth have called them the best in the genre and as some of the best English fiction of the last fifty years?

First, the complexity of the plot and the pleasurable challenge to the intellect in following it. It is not that the language is complex or the structure obscure, as in say Salman Rushdie. Yes, le Carre is in the same class as Salman Rushdie and is not to be taken as a literary lightweight!.

But his stories are of fiendishly clever people at work, intent on deceiving the other, and set against a background of geo-political tension. Since the puzzle involves governments and their strategic intentions, and not just individuals, there is a greater political gravitas in the story being told, compared to the best quality crime thriller.

Second, le Carre is most certainly not either Ian Fleming creating a flamboyant James Bond, or a Tom Clancy with technological razzmatazz. His novels have characters that stay with you and their individual motives, frailties, and pathos are in play with larger causes.

Each character -- whether British, Russian or Chechnian -- comes alive from the description and dialogue that leaves an imprint. Further, it is always a human story within a much larger backdrop.

It is a tribute to le Carre that after the end of the Cold War, the heads of the KGB and Stasi, the East German spy agency, confessed that they had found in his novels the most authentic and sympathetic depiction of the lives and systems that they had run.

Third, the value-judgment that le Carre maintained in his novels of the Cold War period was of moral ambiguity. In the 1960s when he was 30, le Carre in fact worked as a spy for a few years in the British embassy in Germany. All his life, he kept faith with the liberal values of freedom, democracy and an open society.

But in his novels, the Russians are not villains; neither crude, cruel, nor stupid. His novels convey a many layered understanding of the compulsions of individuals and nations trapped in tragic competition, and a suspension of judgment of who is right or wrong.

A cerebral writer with exquisite narrative abilities, dealing with contemporary mega issues: This is the attraction of his novels.

As the decades went by, le Carre has turned more and more critical of American hypocrisy and duplicity in international affairs and of British subservience to the US.

In the last decade or so, his villains are sophisticated and smooth talking arms merchants, the people within the Establishments who are in league with them, and the corporate crooks out to extract profit even from blood.

And the victims? Seemingly innocent individuals caught in the whirl and tumult of larger events. Some of his recent novels inevitably deal with terrorism; bring out the complexities in labelling someone a 'terrorist', and the professional zeal that can create terrorist incidents where none were intended.

His loyalty to humanism has thus taken over his loyalty to 'nationalism', of which he has gradually become a sceptic.

Is there an Indian connection to le Carre? Unfortunately, no, in the sense that none of his novels are set in South Asia and the tensions that trouble us have not become his themes. This may be also be because each of his novels are impeccably researched concerning locale, politics, character and circumstance.

He may be too old now to wade into our troubles for his inspiration. But for his fans, one of his most famous scenes is set in a prison in Delhi where the British try to subvert Karla, the legendary Soviet spy who is being transferred back to Moscow and is being temporarily detained by the Indian agencies. Karla refuses to yield and is destined later to become the head of Soviet intelligence.

The memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, captures vignettes from a celebrated writer's life. During a long career, he has conversed and dined with Presidents and dictators; exchanged notes with intelligence chiefs of half a dozen major powers; had actors like Alec Guinness, Richard Burton, and Sean Connery bring out his stories to life; and has researched in half the trouble spots of the world.

For the first and last time, he recalls some of this. His memories are told in his signature voice: Ambivalent, reflective, sceptical and at times cynical, bemused, and at times saddened and above all, deriving pleasure from the process of writing itself, year after year, book after book.

B S Prakash is a former Ambassador and a long-standing Rediff columnist.
You can read Ambassador Prakash's earlier columns here

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