John le Carre: The maestro has left the field | Business Standard Column

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If giving pleasure to hundreds of millions can be a yardstick for a worthwhile life, le Carre measured up perfectly

Mobile phones have a huge downside: they give you the bad news even before you are out of bed. And so it was that this morning I saw that John le Carre was dead.

He was 89. His real name was David John Moore Cornwell. And I have read all his books, some thrice and almost all the commentaries on them.

His first bestseller was ‘The Spy Who Came In from the Cold’ which I remember reading on a rainy, wintry Sunday in college. It had become a bestseller in 1963 and it introduced the anti-hero spy, Alec Lemas who was the opposite of Ian Fleming’s James Bond, the swashbuckling spy with the ‘license to kill’.

In contrast, le Carre’s heroes never had much luck with guns and roses. If anything, as his pre-eminent character, George Smiley showed, they always had bad luck with him. Thus, Smiley’s wife was having an affair with his colleague, Bill Haydon, but Smiley never stopped loving her. A hero doesn’t get more tragic than that.

The craft, the story, the ideology

Le Carre’s writing, in my view, can be enjoyed in three ways. You can take your pick or enjoy them in all three ways.

For sheer craftsmanship he was unsurpassed. So good was he that no copiers ever emerged, except perhaps Daniel Silva in his early books about the Israeli spy, Gabriel Allon.

The story was the second thing. It was simple and yet so very complexly woven together.

And then there was human frailty. In this he was like Graham Greene, except that for Greene it was the Catholic Church and for le Carre it was the broad Left view of the world. He was always on the side of the underdog and always saw the rich as being amorally powerful. At the heart of everything lay anti-people conspiracies by them to get rich.

Two phases

The end of the Cold War in 1990, when le Carre was in his absolute prime, deprived him of a rich seam. Until then just one of his books, ‘The Naive and Sentimental Lover’ was not about it.

He was just 59 then. Many thought he had shot his bolt with his three core, genre books, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’ ‘Smiley’s People’.

But he wasn’t done and he invented a new genre, the venality of the West, especially Anglo-American covert community. All of the world’s ills and evils were the result of conspiracies hatched by the spy systems of the US and the UK.

I don’t think these books sold as well as the Cold War ones but they found a very large niche readership. Le Carre exposed the one fact that few know about, that nothing is what it seems and what is, is manipulated by the rich and the powerful, who conflate venality with national interest.

But age catches up with everyone. His last few books, starting 2010 or thereabouts, were pale shadows of what had gone before. They lacked what is called authenticity. His last but one book, ‘A Legacy of Spies’, was a bit painful to read.

The last one, ‘Agent Running in the Field’, about an aging agent and a critique of Brexit, was on the whole very disappointing. It was as if Mozart had discovered baroque.

That said, RIP maestro. If giving pleasure to hundreds of millions can be a yardstick for a worthwhile life, le Carre measured up perfectly.

(Twitter: @tca_tca)

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