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Underground Men

A Perfect Spy

by John le Carré
Knopf, 475 pp., $18.95

It is nearly midnight in Vienna. Magnus Pym is saying goodbye to his dinner guests while his second wife Mary is itching to make love with him. Pym, counselor at the embassy, is really head of the British Secret Intelligence Service station; and the last guests to leave are Grant Lederer, who is his opposite number in the CIA, and his sexy wife. But the Pyms do not make love that night or ever again. During dinner Pym had got a call from London. It is from Jack Brotherhood, the officer who recruited him thirty-five years ago into SIS (what used to be called MI6 or “the Firm”) to say that his father had died. “I’m free,” says Pym.

Free from what? Free to do what? Free from an incubus that had sat on his shoulder all his life. For Pym’s father was a con man who collected women, horses, cronies, and gigantic debts, a master at living on credit (“a temporary liquidity problem”) until he ends in smash with twenty-six companies bankrupt—only to talk himself out of his troubles and begin embezzling again from a fresh lot of gullibles. All Pym’s life this crook who has deluded himself as much as others and even once stood for Parliament (naturally as a free enterprise Liberal) has turned up to shame him, hug him, and remind him with tears in his eyes what Pym owes to him: whereas in fact he has often left his son stranded to beg and lie his way out of his difficulties.

Pym is now free to do what he has longed to do—to write his autobiography and explain to all the people in his past why he behaved as he did and to tell his own son Tom his story. To do so he disappears after the funeral to a lodging house in Devon run by a disagreeable old spinster that no one knows about—a “safe” house like those he provided for his agents in the past. There he settles down to write for dear life before the end comes.

For the end is in sight. Famous though he was in SIS for running a network of Czechoslovak agents, his posting to Vienna was odd. Previously as deputy head of the Washington station he was thought to be a possible head of the British secret service. But the CIA, by computer analysis of the Czech embassy radio traffic, suspects Pym to be a double agent: wherever he serves, a Czech agent turns up and then the traffic increases. Indeed he has to fly back from Washington to face a hostile interrogation at SIS headquarters. Not too hostile of course; but he is shunted onto a side track. So it is back to Vienna where Lederer, bubbling with false bonhomie at the dinner, is after him. So, Mary suspects, is Lederer’s wife. Mary has other suspicions. A holiday in Corfu with their son Tom had been wrecked by some mysterious men haunting Pym. He lied to her about them. When Jack Brotherhood appears in Vienna to discover why Pym is suddenly missing, she cannot hide her fears.

Nor can Jack hide his. After all he belongs to the brotherhood of SIS, and if the boy he recruited turns out to be a defector, his own career is on the line. Le Carré plays two tapes to his readers. There is the tape of Pym recording his life from his father’s first fraud; and there is the tape of Jack recording his interviews with those who have crossed Pym’s path as Jack tries to find someone who can give him a clue where Pym is and who his control might be. Like a movie director Le Carré cuts from the first tape to the second with devastating speed so that you have to read as if the devil were at your heels. It is a staggering technical performance, as breathtaking as a circus performer balancing on the high wire.

Le Carré has two scores to settle, and he has been settling them in this novel and also in the columns of the London Sunday Times. The first is with his father. He has described how long it took him to come to terms with this monster who persuaded himself that every fraud he committed was “to see his children right.” “Either you spied for him or on him.” When Le Carré in a television interview failed to attribute his success to his father, his father threatened to sue him and then wrote to Le Carré’s accountant demanding £10,000 in compensation. Le Carré says that he has had several shots at skewering him in previous books, and it may well be that there is more to come because by comparison Pym’s father is almost Mr. Micawber.

The second score is with his father surrogate, SIS. In his novel there is a sub-plot. When Jack gets on Pym’s tail, he discovers that the bureaucrats at the top of SIS, so far from urging him on, fall over themselves to find normal explanations for Pym’s conduct. The reason is simple. For them the truth is far less important than the special relationship with the immensely more powerful CIA. Jack Brotherhood has two objectives: to save Pym’s network of Czech agents and to find Pym. The top brass of SIS do their best to thwart him in both. To evacuate the agents by light aircraft or through safe houses would confirm to the CIA that Pym had gone the way of Maclean and Philby; and then Britain would again be cut off from all American sources of intelligence. As Jack becomes convinced of Pym’s guilt, they order him to stop his interrogations. It is not for nothing that the head of SIS is called “Bo” Brammel, the kind of languid dandy who rises to the top by the arts of elegant intrigue and smooth presentation.

Nor is the CIA much different. Like Brotherhood, Lederer wants the truth to come out. A graduate of an Indiana law school, pushy and too clever by half, he has to contend with the head bureaucrat Harry E. Wexler, who in Lederer’s view has played a star part in all the famous fuck-ups of the Sixties. Wexler talks in Haig-speak. If he cannot speak clearly, how can he think clearly, reasons Lederer, son of an immigrant, as he watches the British run rings around Wexler. He also has to contend with the head of the CIA London office, “a spoilt Bostonian millionaire considered brilliant on no evidence,” who tells him, “I have to live here, Lederer. I just hope this time either you make it stick or they post the hell out of you.” Lederer does in the end make it stick by using his wife to provide evidence; and for this misdemeanor, which finally pinpoints Pym’s guilt, he receives his reward. ” ‘Lederer overheats and overrelates,’ wrote one of the Agency’s expanding team of house psychiatrists. ‘He requires a less hysterical environment.’ ” Lederer is posted to hell back to the statistics department in America. And what of the enemy? Pym’s “control” is no better off. He knows his bureaucracy in Prague will liquidate him when it suits them. “The man who is absent is the man they conspire against.”

Don’t look for the truth about him—all you have to do is to find the hermit crab that climbed into him,” says one of the Firm’s Sloane Ranger secretaries to Jack Brotherhood. The crab is a Sudeten German called Axel whom Pym met just after the war when he was seventeen in Bern and both were penniless students. Axel is on the run, a case of mistaken identity, from the Americans, from the Swiss police, and from the Czechs. Far more intelligent than Pym, he is amused by the British boy’s naiveté; and Pym, always in search of love, worships him. Pym mentions Axel to his new acquaintance, the young SIS officer Jack Brotherhood, who is looking Pym over; with hardly a thought Brotherhood sees this as a chance to earn Brownie points with the Swiss and the Americans. He turns Axel in. Axel is ritually beaten up by the police of all three nations and treated as a fascist by the Czechs for having fought in the German army. Then they discover his father had fought with the Thaelmann brigade in Spain and he is rehabilitated. When Pym is sent by the SIS on his first mission to Prague, complete with secret inks, camera, and code book, and is immediately arrested, Axel comes to the rescue and strikes a deal. By this time he has learned the rules of communism, which asses to lick and which to kick and at which moment to denounce your boss. Axel persuades Pym to save his skin by becoming a double agent, and from then on they pass information to each other—Axel from a fictitious network of spies and Pym from the documents that come his way and can be photographed.

Why is Pym a perfect spy? Why does he fail to renounce Axel? Le Carré’s novel does not, like a Hollywood movie, give a single explanation dredged up from the stagnant pool of psychoanalysis. We are not going to be fobbed off with the blinding truth that Pym spies because he is searching for the love he was denied as a child. That is partly true but it is only one reason. Pym enjoys being good company and feeling people respond. But whoever he loves he betrays and then wants them all the more to love him. At school he betrayed a friend called Sefton Boyd who later taught him upper-class manners at Oxford. He loves Axel who taught him German culture and who liberated him; but he betrayed him in Bern to Jack. He loves Jack and the Firm but he betrays them. He loves his wife and son but betrays them. No, Sefton Boyd tells Jack, Pym wouldn’t sell secrets for money. “Love was all he cared about. Didn’t know where to find it. Clown really. Tried too hard.”

Axel had another explanation. Pym was hollow. He was an imitator, “entirely put together from other bits of people, poor fellow.” His first wife put forward a different theory: Pym was always on the run escaping from his father. That was why he joined SIS, just as he married her to escape from the clutches of her friend Jemima who was far more alluring—and alarming. Even when SIS misused him he still loved its “cock-eyed integrity” and its “tweedy bear-hugs so like his father’s.” Yet another explanation is that Pym could not help being a con man like his father. Like him he cannot tell the truth. Like him he rewards his business friends (agents) with gifts of coffee and nylons. Just as his father’s horses, the Neverwozzers, never won a race, Pym’s agents can never win a trick—they are controlled by Axel.

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