Out in the Cold

A PERFECT SPY byJohn le Carré. Knopf, $18.95.
JOHN LE CARRÉ’S journey as a novelist has been a downward spiral into disillusionment—with England, with Western society in general, with the idea that political systems will ever accomplish anything worthwhile—and he’s taken his most famous character, the bemused, brilliant spy George Smiley, with him. On the last pages of Smiley’s People, at the end of the long saga le Carré has written for him (five novels, stretching over nineteen years), Smiley stands in the snowy night next to the Berlin Wall and realizes that in some terrible way he has become the archenemy he has just run to ground—Karla, the Soviet master spy whose ruthless methods Smiley, the man of conscience, has been willing to adopt in order to ruin him. Smiley has been at the Wall before. He saw Alec Leamas shot down there in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. Earlier in that book Control, the head of the Circus (le Carré’s rather heavily ironic nickname for his British Secret Service), tells Leamas, “We do disagreeable things so that ordinary people here and elsewhere can sleep safely in their beds at night. Is that too romantic? Of course, we occasionally do very wicked things.’ He grinned like a schoolboy.”What Smiley, who inherited Control’s position, has learned is the simple, almost primitive, lesson that you cannot do evil and remain good. His profession has destroyed him.
It’s not surprising that le Carré abandoned Smiley after Smiley’s People: there was no one left to write about. In his latest novel, A Perfect Spy. le Carré has taken for his protagonist a man with no moral center at all, only a desire to manipulate, to gain admiration and power at any cost, so long as someone else pays. The means have become the end, and George Smiley the hero has become Magnus Pym the psychopath.
For his concentration on the inner price to the individual who plays the “Great Game” of international espionage, le Carré has been compared to Conrad. He invites the comparison by borrowing Conradian names (Kurtz in The Little Drummer Girl; Marlow and Axel in A Perfect Spy) and echoing famous passages (in Smiley’s People, Smiley thinks of himself and Karla in an image from “The Secret Sharer”). But he hasn’t the same understanding of political and social complexity. Journeying with Conrad into the various hearts of imperialist darkness, we lose our moral way—in the places where we end up, good and evil as we know them not only don’t apply, they don’t even make much sense. When le Carré, in The Little Drummer Girl, attempts to educate us as to the legitimacy and illegitimacy of the claims on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he ends by making the two camps seem identical: their aims may differ, but their methods have turned them into twins. When he does this with Smiley and Karla it is, if not quite believable, at least spooky and disturbing—he touches on the fear we all have that we may become what we hate. But on the political level it’s unconvincing and ineffective, more a plague-on-bothyour-houses judgment than an examination of political reality. In fact—with his complicated plots, moral indignation, and vivid, sometimes eccentric characterizations—le Carré resembles not Conrad but Dickens. There’s some of Kipling in him, too, in his fascination with non-English societies and his attempts to define and, on one level, to defend Englishness. This is the tradition he belongs to: the great English story tellers, with their liveliness and moral lessons. There’s something a little vulgar about this tradition, something nannyish and scolding, which Kipling was undone by and Dickens, with his protean genius, transcended (as Shaw transcended it, by wit, on the stage). But it’s precisely le Carre’s middlebrow qualities—the earnest moralizing, the sentimental fondness for Smiley—that have helped to make him popular.
For le Carré’s secret world isn’t constructed to make the reader feel comfortably at home; it’s repellent and unsettling. The lies and false identities and continual betrayals are the shiftings of a reality that has no center. Nothing can really be known. Le Carré has taken this quintessentially twentieth-century point of view, with all its irony and despair, and wedded it to the thriller: he’s a pulp modernist. His Circus of backstabbing career men, petty mysteries, and ugly jostlings for power is one of Kafka’s nightmare bureaucracies domesticated and made hideously familiar. In this hell Smiley is our reliably human guide. He’s a literary throwback (and this is what separates le Carré from Graham Greene) to the heroes of classic English detective fiction—men like Sherlock Holmes and Peter Wimsey, who knew who they were and what they stood for. The difference between the detective and the espionage novel is the difference between the nineteenth and the twentieth century, between a world of certainty and stability, in which murder was an aberration and the solving of a crime the solution to an elegant puzzle, and one of chaos, in which murder is commonplace and life itself a puzzle. In this sense Smiley is a nineteenth-century man. He maintains his moral outlook: even corrupted, he can mourn his corruption. It’s why we, and his creator, care about him.
IT’S HARD TO care about Magnus Pym, father-obsessed double agent and professional betrayer. Le Carré devotes more than 400 pages to him, but he doesn’t seem moved by him: he treats him more as a case history than as an object of sympathy. The novel begins when Pym, a highly placed British agent, is discovered to be working for the Czechs, as well. He goes into hiding, and as his old mentor. Jack Brotherhood, searches for him and tries to figure out what damage he’s done, le Carré takes us through Pym’s past to show us who he is and how he got that way. Le Carré has turned away completely from the wide-open geographical and political spaces of The Little Drummer Girl; A Perfect Spy is about the inside of a man’s head, about his soul.
Although Brotherhood’s investigations give the novel a suspense, puzzlesolving structure, it’s essentially a psychological study. Pym’s relationship to his con-man father, whom he both admires and loathes, is given as the explanation for his spiritual emptiness. By becoming a government-sanctioned con man, a spy, Pym follows in his father’s footsteps; by betraying those for whom he works, specifically his two surrogate fathers, Jack Brotherhood and Axel Hampel (code-named Poppy), he revenges himself.
The story sounds as if it should work—it’s cleverly designed—but written out it isn’t very satisfying. The tendency le Carré has always had to divide his characters into good guys and bad guys suggests the problem. His sense of character is static: people are what they are. This isn’t necessarily a drawback— it was Dickens’s idea of character too— but it’s death to a psychological novel. We don’t so much watch Pym change as watch him as a boy suffer from his father over and over again, and as a man play out over and over again his revenge. The same events keep turning up in different hats. This was true in the Smiley novels, too; but because it was fun to see how Smiley would tackle the problems, there was a pleasure in the sameness. With Pym we’ve gotten the point long before le Carré quits making it.
A Perfect Spy also suffers from le Carré’s hero-worship of his male characters. Even with Smiley there was a bit too much of Toby Esterhase crowing about what a genius George was. But Smiley was at least conceived in an antiheroic mode—fat, shy, a cuckold. The men in A Perfect Spy are all larger than life: Pym the superspy; the crippled, heroic survivor Axel; Pym’s compellingly selfish father; and largest of all Jack Brotherhood, whom Pym describes without irony as “a straight-backed English brave of the officer class, the one who keeps his head when all about him are losing theirs.” To the reader, Brotherhood may seem more like a joke: keeping hysterical women in their place and knocking around homosexuals, he’s like a parody of Raymond Chandler’s tough-guy dick Philip Marlowe. Far more interesting, and more convincingly tough, is the reprehensible upper-class cad and pederast Sefton Boyd, a man so horrid that it’s almost impossible not to fall for him. Le Carré’s portrait of Pym’s supposedly charming father, who comes off rather talky and transparent, could have used some of Boyd’s rotten magnetism.
Pym himself is too shallow to hold our interest or sympathy. Yet his failure as a character is perhaps the inevitable result of le Carré’s integrity. Smiley, with his simple virtue and courage, was really a boys’-book hero. Le Carré’s conception of the world was always more sophisticated and harsher than his conception of Smiley, and the longer he wrote about him the more difficult it became to reconcile him with that world in any honest way. He finally had to leave him behind. As a character, Jack Brotherhood may be just as corny-heroic, but he’s not at the center of le Carré’s story. The center is Pym, of whom le Carré can write, after Pym has sold Axel to the British, “How Pym loved Axel in the weeks that followed!” In The Honourable Schoolboy Connie Sachs quotes Steed-Asprey (“Or was it Control?”), one of the founders of the Service: “‘We’re fighting for the survival of Reasonable Man.’” But the fight has killed what it was meant to preserve. Smiley is gone, and in his place is Magnus Pym, the hollow man without honor or loyalty and with no purpose but to deceive: the perfect spy.