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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.

Or perhaps he became a spy because he loved secrecy. Secrecy gives power—the arcane knowledge that you know what others can’t know. We learn about secrecy in childhood, we learn then to hold our tongue; we learn that everyone talks and that what we say will be repeated and get us into trouble. “It’s high time you learned that it’s not polite to mention one woman to another, son,” says his father to the nine-year-old Pym. “Because if you don’t learn that, you’ll waste your advantages, and that’s a fact.” Pym learns all the tricks. And perhaps the reason he becomes the perfect spy is that he believes in nothing. He is all things to all men.

This book is Le Carré’s most brilliant achievement, and the intricacy of the dense plot would be unendurable but for his talent as a mimic. There is the staccato upper-class utterance of the Hon. Sir Kenneth Sefton Boyd:

Jemima’s my sister. They had a dingdong once, never came to much. Married a florist. Extraordinary thing. Chap grows flowers all along the road to Basingstoke. Puts his name up on a board. Doesn’t seem to bother her. Not that she sees much of him. Navigational problems, our Jem. Same as me.

(Jemima, who early in the book has been a nymphomaniac, ends as a lesbian. Her brother ends up a Conservative MP: his navigational problem is homosexuality. That’s the sort of thing that happens to Le Carré’s characters.) Le Carré knows the exact difference of inflection between the accented English of a Jewish refugee girl, of a Swiss minor philanthropist, of a German intellectual, and of a stupid, disagreeable Czech seductress. All the nuances of the English obsession with social class can be found in these pages. Explaining to the young Pym a shift in his father’s operations, one of the gang says: “By 1945…shortages have become, let’s face it, Titch, a risk business…. The coming thing, Titch, is your Reconstruction.” I found only one social malapropism in Le Carré’s diction. Talking to Pym’s twelve-year-old son Tom, Brotherhood says: “I expect you were worried about him, son.” No one of that social class would call a small boy at an English boarding school “son.” That’s the way policemen talk to children when they’re being friendly.

Le Carré is a natural writer with an unmistakable voice and a vitality that bounces off the page. It scarcely matters that those long interrogations by Jack are as much a device to advance the plot as the butler and parlor maid gossiping about their employers at the beginning of a West End comedy on the British stage between the wars. His stories conceal private codes: once again as in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus is used as a code book. What does it mean? The name of a senior member of the security services is Hobsbawn—near enough to the name of Britain’s most celebrated Marxist historian. Le Carré smiles behind his hand.

He has given the spy story a twist by reaching new heights of verisimilitude. Old hands in British intelligence, Graham Greene or Ian Fleming, did so too; but Greene used his inside knowledge sparingly and James Bond’s escapades were so fantastical that no illusion of truth was created. Le Carré has all the jargon at his finger tips—skip distances, frequency variations, reception zones, Joes, tunnellers, talent spotters, Gees, captive-carry, nose-cones, burnboxes—and he’s amused that SIS has adopted one or two of the terms he invented. It’s rather like Bond’s obsession with the right consumer goods—the martinis must be bruised not shaken.

The verisimilitude is so blinding that one can’t believe in the truth. As Roger Fry said of Sargent’s portrait of General Sir Ian Hamilton, “I cannot see the man for his likeness.” Reality is destroyed by the hype. For, of course, his characters run in overdrive, fueled by copious slugs of vodka. The natural form for a metaphor to take is sexual: committees are set up to goose the Firm’s ego; Grant Lederer is inspired, as he begins the big speech which he is convinced will destroy Pym, by the memory of his wife “splayed above him in her naked glory, making love to him like all the angels in Heaven”; and oral–genital contacts are definitely in this year as characters wipe their wives’ moisture from their faces. Sometimes we make a detour into Greene-land:

You’re a lecherous priest scavenging the last of God’s grace, she told him, watching his slow purposeful movements as he filled his own glass. First the wine, now the water. Now lower your eyelid and lift the chalice for a sanctimonious word with Him who sent you.

The fireworks are spiffing but they don’t illuminate. At its best it’s like listening to Liszt, at its worst, being pelted with rhinestones.

Le Carré is now the head executive of the corporation he has taken over. Founded by Kipling in Kim, the old business did well enough in the days of Le Queux, Erskine Childers, Maugham, and Buchan. But after the war Daimlers began to lose their share of the market, although a souped-up model with a sexy Italian body made a killing when marketed by Ian Fleming. No longer was it easy to sell the model in which our men were heroes and their spies were villains. A public reared on the triumphs of Sandy Arbuthnot, Ashenden, and Jonah Mansel wanted to know what had happened to the British secret services. The revelation that Philby, so talented and adroit, might have been made “C,” the head of SIS, shook a number of people.

To Jack Brotherhood SIS symbolizes inertia. “What was once a great service has become an immobile hybrid—half bureaucrat, half anarchist, and using the arguments of the one to negate the other.” But was it ever a great service? Hugh Trevor-Roper described his chiefs during the war as sharks or boobies running a service recruited haphazard in the bar of White’s or by John Buchan from his house near Oxford; a service rent by jealousies and feuds. The heroic British agent became Our Man in Havana and another wartime member of SIS, Malcolm Muggeridge, gave a hilarious account of his activities in Lourenço Marques. Twenty years later, in The Human Factor, Greene’s mood had darkened and SIS was plotting to kill a communist agent and killing the wrong man: not all that far from Eden’s mad idea to get SIS to assassinate Nasser. When the headless body of a frogman sent to examine the hull of a Soviet warship at a naval review was found, a change had to be made, and much to its chagrin SIS found that its new chief was to be the man who was currently the head of the security service.

Dick White had been a conspicuous success in security. He was of a different order of intelligence and ability from his predecessors, and it was assumed matters would improve, especially since he had always been convinced of Philby’s guilt. But did they? Philby’s friends in SIS, outraged that he had been forced to resign and convinced of his innocence, got the Observer to employ him in Beirut and file unpublishable stories with SIS. When his cover was blown all that was done (assassination now being out under the new regime) was to send one of his former supporters to say what a jolly poor show it had been. Nor had fantasy in SIS disappeared. The head of the British station in Washington backed the judgment of his brilliant but eccentric counterpart in the CIA in arguing that since nothing would have suited Brezhnev better than a pretext to invade Czechoslovakia, Dubcek must have been a KGB agent. SIS placed such trust in the tales that the Soviet defector Golitsyn spun that the redoubtable Maurice Oldfield (on whom Le Carré is said to have modeled Smiley) refused to reject the thesis that the Sino-Soviet split was part of a gigantic disinformation plan planted in the West.

The truth is, of course, platitudinous. During the war there were the blunders that enabled German spies in the British embassies in Rome and Ankara to operate at will; the ineptitudes in running agents; and the fantasies that Christopher Andrew has chronicled,* such as the plan to deprive Germany of Romanian oil by blowing up the mountainside at the Iron Gates and blocking the Danube. But there were the staggering triumphs of deciphering the traffic of the German armed forces (Ultra); and the deception schemes before the Normandy invasion; and Guy Liddell’s brilliant running of double agents. Nor were the British agents all duped or put in the bag. In 1941 the Hungarian railwaymen’s reports enabled a fairly accurate picture to be made of the German buildup for the attack on Yugoslavia and Greece; and in Norway the delivery of beer to German troops and the details of the ration per officer, noncom, and enlisted man enabled an Oxford ancient historian, his lips stained yellow with nicotine, to plot the exact location and strength of every unit in the country.

The defection of the British scientists and diplomats had a second effect. People became obsessed with betrayal. What really had led Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt to betray their trust? Was Forster writing sentimental rubbish when he said that faced with a choice he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country rather than a friend? That was what Blunt urged Goronwy Rees to remember when Rees told him that he was convinced that Burgess was a spy and that he intended to denounce him to the security services. Rees replied that the dichotomy was false—one’s country was not an abstract conception but made up of a dense network of individual and social relationships in which loyalty to a particular person formed only a single strand.

Books such as Rebecca West’s on the meaning of treason, which explained nothing except how patriotic she was, have poured from the press from that day to this, when two entertaining dramas about betrayal have been produced: Julian Mitchell’s Another Country and Alan Bennett’s An Englishman Abroad. Was there any moral difference between spying for the Soviets and spying for the West? Graham Greene asked how Philby and company differed from those heroic Jesuit priests in the sixteenth century who were trained to infiltrate Elizabethan England and sometimes died on the scaffold. Really? Some might think that Englishmen in those days were right to prefer being ruled by Elizabeth rather than submit to the gloomy bigotry and fanaticism of Philip II’s Spain, just as their descendants are right to regard the institutions of Philby’s adopted country as more inhumane than their own.

Le Carré handles this ambiguity with great éclat. Betrayal explodes a carton of paradoxes in his mind. He has Pym writing:

We betray to be loyal. Betrayal is like imagining when the reality isn’t good enough”…. Betrayal as hope and compensation. As the making of a better land. Betrayal as love. As a tribute to our unlived lives. On and on, these ponderous aphorisms. Betrayal as escape. As a constructive act. As a statement of ideals…. Betrayal as travel: how can we discover new places if we never leave home?

Or there is Lederer’s more ingenious explanation. “Know why so many defectors redefect?…It’s in and out of the womb all the time…. They’re immature…they are literally motherfuckers.”

Le Carré deliberately weights the scales against the West. Axel is his most attractive character and he sees no need to apologize for his conduct. Britain betrayed Czechoslovakia at Munich and now it is its turn to be betrayed. Like his father before him Axel becomes an intelligent but dedicated communist. “All the junk that made you what you are,” he tells Pym, “the privileges, the snobbery, the hypocrisy, the churches, the schools, the fathers, the class systems, the historical lies, the little lords of the countryside, the little lords of business, all the greedy wars that result from them, we are sweeping that away for ever.” He may have been half killed by torturers in the prisons and made to denounce Slansky, but he comes up with the justification of injustice that Marxists always peddle. Whatever the errors, the future is ours. As Brecht said: “The East and the West are both whores. But my whore is pregnant.”

But Le Carré does not let Axel, with all his amused Central European irony, get away with it. Pym’s Sloane Ranger wife is not taken in. She feels Axel’s sexual attraction but she will have none of his double talk. She knows Pym has betrayed her and his son, his country and the agents recruited by his colleagues—agents who will have been executed. She is not deceived by Axel’s appeal to find Pym and save him from retribution because they both love him.

Le Carré may not be deluded by the rhetoric of the Eastern bloc but he seems to despair of his own country, of which the Firm is only a symbol. Greeted at a party by a former colleague in SIS with the words, “You bastard,” and a volley of abuse for having lampooned the service, Le Carré, in his Sunday Times article, tried to justify himself. The old hands in SIS when he joined it were “not bad men by any means. Not dishonest men. Not stupid. But men who see the threat to their own class as synonymous with a threat to England.” Men who still preferred to recruit someone who has “short back and sides, speaks the King’s English, good country public school, a games player, understands discipline, not an arty type.” But just as you expect him to deliver another plunging salvo at the torpid old ironclad, Le Carré changes course and making smoke delivers a noisy cannonade against the present government. The British should spend less time worrying about their defectors since each generation is bound to produce a crop of them. They should be worrying about the prime minister and her inner cabinet, the chiefs of staff, and the Foreign Office. An intelligence service is only as good as those who use it. It is not the defector but the present gang of politicians who corrupt the service.

On the very last page of his novel, describing the special police marksmen maneuvering to arrest Pym, Le Carré says, “A society that admires its shock troops had better be bloody careful about where it’s going”; and he refers again in his article to the “slavish media admiration of its shock troops.” Overt government has become “a cover story to keep us quiet while the real game is played elsewhere.” Parliament and the civil services are honeycombed with committees designed to stop any real surveillance of the secret and paramilitary services. In high places there is “flagrant deception” (Heseltine, Ponting, and the sinking of the Belgrano?); economic policy is “a pig’s first gospel of self-interest” (Thatcher’s belief in the entrepreneur and free enterprise?). And his solution? If the British want to keep an accountable secret service, it must be much less secret.

There’s something odd here. In his novel Le Carré pictures Pym and Axel in Washington a trifle vexed because “information which ten years ago would have cost communist countries thousands of hard currency dollars could by the mid-Seventies he had for a few coppers from the Washington Post.” The Freedom of Information Act has practically put spies out of business. Golitsyn’s assertion that there was a fifth man in the British security service started a disastrous search which paralyzed it and led to the suspicion that its head, Roger Hollis, was a mole.

The charge never stuck, but those officers in the service who believed it was true leaked their suspicions to Chapman Pincher, the most celebrated British journalist for unearthing stories about weaponry and espionage. Pincher’s book indicting Hollis is too much based on circumstantial evidence to be convincing. The disaffected officers are still unappeased; one has fled to Australia where he intends to publish his memoirs unless the British can succeed in a court case to silence him. But this and other examples of more open debate about the secret services do not please Le Carré. To him these creatures who attack Hollis “dignify their collective incompetence by calling him a traitor.” I happen to think Le Carré is right. But I’m not sure what happens to his demand to expose the secret services to parliamentary committees and journalists.

For some time astute judges have seen in Le Carré far more than a writer of spy stories. He seems to be capable of leaving the allegory of the spy story and evoking in fiction his society and spelling out Britain’s decline. He may, of course, believe that this decline is as irreversible as that of Spain or Venice was in the eighteenth century. But he writes more like a frustrated idealist sick of his country in which “failed socialism is being succeeded by failed capitalism.” Enraged that the old ruling class was so incompetent and failed to reform institutions, he contemplates the alternatives with distaste. On the one hand is a party whose leaders spent their time in running away from the country’s problems, abdicating power to the pressure groups and knifing their two best men, Roy Jenkins and Denis Healey, so that they should be denied the leadership. On the other hand, in his view, is a gang that believes in the spiv philosophy of his father, in which money, preferably gained by dubious means, and consumption of goods are the ultimate values. If he really believes that given good will a regime can emerge combining policies that would ensure economic growth and prosperity with policies that relieve the poor, the sick, and the needy from anxiety and achieve greater equality, he is in for a disappointment.

  1. *

    Her Majesty’s Secret Service: The Making of the British Intelligence Community (Viking/Elisabeth Sifton Books, 1986); reviewed by David Cannadine, The New York Review (March 27).

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