The end of the cold war is a hard bargain. Certainly it is an advantage to mankind that our chances of being vaporized into radioactive mist have been reduced considerably, and yet, on the debit side, we have lost one of the greatest characters in the history of the espionage novel, George Smiley: OBE, master of the Cambridge Circus, combatant of the Soviet spymaster Karla, and world-weary creation of John le Carré. For a half century Smiley made a career of the artful comeback. But unless le Carré enjoys the torture of geriatrics, we cannot reasonably expect him to prod his creation from retirement for yet another adventure. “It’s over, and so am I,” Smiley wistfully told a graduating class of spies in the 1990 valedictory novel, The Secret Pilgrim. “Time you rang down the curtain on yesterday’s cold warrior. And please don’t ask me back, ever again. The time needs new people. The worst thing you can do is imitate us.” We imagine our hero now slumped by the fire at his house on Bywater Street, poring once more over Goethe and Grimmelshausen, absently polishing his glasses with the fat end of his tie.
The Great Game was good sport—for the players as well as for us. Even before the Soviet empire collapsed in a heap, the inhabitants of le Carré’s novels wailed like Spanish widows whenever they were driven from the secret world. Spies who were shelved for reasons of age or scandal raged against the light of the common world and cried out for the murk of the shadows. They, like the readers for whom they performed, could hardly imagine a life without the cramped and somber universe of obscure victories and shaming defeats. For them, the world of cold war espionage was an extension of boarding school days, a realm of enforced intimacy, private language, and class distinctions. Who could face the tedium of retirement by the telly after the hale days of “honey pots,” “duckdives,” “water games,” “double-double games,” “reptile funds,” and “Moscow rules”? What pleasure was there in baby-sitting the neighbor’s brats when one has baby-sat a Czech spy? Connie Sachs, the revered analyst who had been known at the Circus as “Mother Russia,” was just one who positively wept over her banishment to civilian life. Forced out of the secret service in a time of constant scandal, she descended into drink and depression at her pet-infested cottage in Oxford. “I hate the real world, George,” Connie Sachs told Smiley. “I like the Circus and all my lovely boys.”
Now Götterdämmerung is past and the real world is all we have. It is all Connie Sachs has and it is all John le Carré has. The new complications are threatening and promise little entertainment. We have entered an era of Balkan chaos, fundamentalist terrorism, ecological apocalypse, international narco-business, runaway population growth, and runaway ignorance, and where is the genre fiction in all that? We may yet discover it. But as le Carré’s latest novel, The Night Manager, proves, even the most imaginative among us are having a hard time adjusting to life without the familiar landscapes and verities of the cold war.
Le Carré, who had a short career in the British secret service, and his hero, Smiley, who had a long and more glorious one, share a qualified sense of satisfaction at the end of the struggle with Moscow. Both of them are pleased at the fall of a murderous, wasting regime yet dubious about the price of victory and the role espionage may have played in it. In The Secret Pilgrim, Smiley tells the freshly minted spooks, “The purpose of my life was to end the time I lived in. So if my past were still around today, you could say I’d failed. But it’s not around. We won. Not that the victory matters a damn. And perhaps we didn’t win anyway. Perhaps they just lost. Or perhaps, without the bonds of ideological conflict to restrain us any more, our troubles are just beginning.”
In May, le Carré addressed a somewhat less idealistic group, the Boston Bar Association, saying,
When people tell me I am a genre writer, I can only reply, “Yes, but the cold war was a genre war.” And now, thank God, my element, my genre, is no longer at the center of our concerns. Though the spies spy on, they cannot impress us as they used to. The same, it has been said, goes for me. You may have read about my premature demise. Well, even if it were true, which it isn’t, you wouldn’t see me crying in my beer. Spying was the passion of my time. I was there, I felt some of it on my own body. I reported on it. And as I grew away from it, and recollected it in tranquillity, I made it my bit of earth, my context, my way of looking at life.
Le Carré made the cold war his bit of earth no less than Wilfred Owen made the Great War his. He took elements of the “real” world of espionage and conflated them with his own inventions. To heighten the drama of all the missions in the novels and give them a political resonance, he exploited his audience’s anxious obsession with recent history and then magnified that anxiety into that queer pleasure of suspense. Smiley, for example, waged war against the legacy of the Cambridge Apostles as well as Moscow. He fell victim to, and then defeated, Bill Haydon, who acted as a mole for Moscow while occupying one of the highest positions in the British service.
All of Smiley’s qualities of probity, self-examination, and modesty contrasted with the arrogance and foolishness so prevalent in Whitehall and his own service. There are so many poseurs who put political expediency before truth in le Carré that the novels give a pretty accurate picture of why the West, despite its vast budgets, failed to understand the rotten state of the Soviet economy and what that might lead to. Although Smiley’s diction and schooling, even his marriage, were in the upper registers of the British caste system, he suffered from neither snobbery nor pomposity. Le Carré never told us much about Smiley’s origins or parents, except to say that he spent some time in Hamburg and was prepared for confirmation by a retired bishop. Life began, in the mid-1920s, at Oxford. Smiley served a set of values more than a class or blind patriotism. He reserved his greatest respect not for the leaders of the secret service, who risked nothing, but for the defectors and agents in the field who risked all.
Le Carré’s cold war novels are so tightly linked in atmosphere, characters, and episode that it is hard to imagine that he did not anticipate three or more books in advance. From Call for the Dead through The Secret Pilgrim, a span of three decades, le Carré was able to conceive a fictive realm so complete, so unlike anything else, that one returned to it with the same sort of pleasure and anticipation as one would a visit back to Chandler’s Los Angeles or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. It was a realm of cheap hotels, farmhouses on some perilous border, deserted railway stations at four in the morning, safe houses rank with the smell of cigarette butts and the rising damp. Le Carré developed a vocabulary so quirky that some of the terms have since been adopted by the secret service. The scholar David Monaghan has even provided fans with a book-length glossary: Smiley’s Circus: A Guide to the Secret World of John le Carré (St. Martin’s Press, 1986).
But what elevated the series, above all, was the richness of the characters and the stylized interplay among them. The intimacy among spies was one of le Carré’s most curious themes, and perhaps the most peculiar relationship of all was the one between Smiley and Karla. Smiley once interrogated Karla in Delhi when they both were young, and, during that exchange, Karla borrowed, then pocketed, a cigarette lighter that had been a gift to Smiley from his wife, Ann. That lighter was the perfect symbol of Smiley and Karla’s almost total knowledge of each other and their war and their strange mutual admiration. When Karla is finally defeated, he lets the lighter tumble from his pocket to the street. Smiley, who has long since lost Ann, does not stoop to pick it up.
When the BBC broadcast versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, with Alec Guinness as Smiley, it seemed right that the films each lasted well over five hours, the better to capture the stalking pace and half-light texture of the novels. In a sense, le Carré wrote the definitive version of the cold war, if only because his version of things, and his doubts and revulsions, made more human sense than the snippets of spy business we read about in the press.
At a time when Ian Fleming’s erotonuclear fantasies were the favorite reading of John Kennedy, le Carré had the moral decency to deglamorize a war that pretended to glamour. The fits of cinematic activity—the deceptions, the violence—came only rarely in the novels, and always somehow off to the side. Though we never knew what reality was in the spy game, le Carré’s books somehow reeked of verisimilitude. His characters suffered from the indignities of ordinary life and the privations of secrecy: boredom, defeat, humiliation, cynicism. In his failed marital life and the refuge of his modest academic pleasures, Smiley seemed at times a character in Cheever, though a spy, not a broker.
Beginning with Call for the Dead in 1961, Smiley appeared on the scene, fat, somber, and sad, a cuckold whose only remaining illusion was his wife, the promiscuous aristocrat Lady Ann Sercombe. He is a figure from the end-of-Empire—educated to rule, but appointed, in the end, to help run a humbled intelligence service and oversee the erosion of England. Smiley was recruited out of Oxford for wartime intelligence, and then rejoined the service instead of pursuing literary studies all because “of the revelations of a young Russian cipher-clerk in Ottawa [who] had created a new demand for men of Smiley’s experience.” (The reference is to Igor Gouzenko, whose defection in September 1945 led to the arrest of Klaus Fuchs and the flight of Burgess and Maclean.) Spying provided Smiley
with what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behavior, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions…. Conversely it saddened him to witness in himself the gradual death of natural pleasure. Always withdrawn, he now found himself shrinking from the temptations of friendship and human loyalty; he guarded himself warily from spontaneous reaction. By the strength of his intellect, he forced himself to observe humanity with clinical objectivity, and because he was neither immortal nor infallible he hated and feared the falseness of his life.
In other words, our spy was not much different from his creator. He spent a lot of time sitting and brooding.
Smiley was a hero less for his capture of Soviet moles than for his sense of the right thing to do. He recognized a quality of absurdity in the solemnities of espionage and carried on, sometimes ruthlessly, only out of an inchoate loyalty to certain ingrown ideas of country and liberty. Did it really matter much that he finally manipulated Karla into defecting? Karla, we can readily imagine, was replaced with another skillful spymaster. When Smiley, after countless humiliations, lures Karla into West Berlin at the end of Smiley’s People, he is hardly in a mood to gloat.
“George, you won,” said Guillam, as they walked slowly towards the car.
“Did I?” said Smiley. “Yes. Yes, well I suppose I did.”
We can only imagine how a conventional writer of thrillers, say Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy, would have overplayed the scene. Smiley is not ashamed of his cause, just dubious of espionage. “By being all things to all spies, one does rather run the risk of becoming nothing to oneself,” Smiley confessed sadly to the graduating spies. “Please don’t ever imagine you’ll be unscathed by the methods you use. The end may justify the means—if it wasn’t supposed to, I dare say you wouldn’t be here. But there’s a price to pay, and the price does tend to be oneself. Easy to sell one’s soul at your age. Harder later.” One imagines that here Smiley is talking not only about the soul of the spy, but also about the soul of the country paying the spy.
The game of espionage in le Carré always had about it the elevated meaninglessness, and the terrible sadness, of the game of chess in Nabokov’s The Defense. The protagonists of both writers become obsessive students of their peculiar art and are eventually driven mad as they become more and more disengaged from the world. In A Perfect Spy, Magnus Pym turns to a life of espionage because it is the natural extension of his childhood. Pym’s father, like le Carré’s own, was a con-man, a trickster who tried to use his ability to slip in and out of character as his ticket to elevation in the British class system. Pym, the son, has no firm sense of who he is or where he belongs, and slips easily into the secret world. He seems to master it, but somewhere along the way a Czech agent masters him, turning Pym inexorably into a traitor. Pym ends his miserable life in despair, a suicide. Nabokov’s Luzhin, the idiot savant of chess, cannot see past the equations and imagery of chess that crowd his mind, finally pitches himself out a window only to see below him one more phantasmagorical sight, the abyss of “dark and pale squares,” the final chessboard.
Just as Luzhin is driven mad in “the hours of insomnia” trying to ward off the “inevitable and unthinkable catastrophe bearing down on him,” le Carré’s spies spend their nights holed up in cheap hotel rooms and flats listening for a signal on the radio, a ring-and-disconnect on the phone. And it leads to almost nothing. Le Carré’s novels, despite Smiley’s supreme skill, are an extended attack on the mythical competence of intelligence services. As le Carré told the lawyers of Boston,
It wasn’t the spies who won the cold war. I don’t believe that in the end the spies mattered very much at all. Their capsuled isolation and their remote theorizing actually prevented them from seeing, as late as 1987 or 1988, what anybody in the street could have told them: “It’s over. We’ve won. The Iron Curtain is crashing down! The monolith we fought is a bag of bones! Come out of your trenches and smile!”
Even the victory, for them, was a cunning Bolshevik trick. And, anyway, what had they got to smile about. It was a victory achieved by openness, not secrecy. By frankness, not intrigue. The Soviet empire did not fall apart because spooks had bugged the men’s room in the Kremlin or put broken glass in Mrs. Brezhnev’s bath but because running a huge, closed, repressive society in the 1980’s had become—economically, socially, militarily, and technologically—impossible.
Le Carré’s cold war novels, because of their pervasive irony and sense of doubt, the constant reflection they give on the greater world beyond the spy game, have often, and rightly, been compared to Conrad’s The Secret Agent and Greene’s The Man Within, Our Man in Havana, and Brighton Rock. As in Conrad or Greene, le Carré’s novels use espionage as a diverting front for the search into the darker corners of the self. The agent is an ideal modern hero: cut off from conventional responsibility, he is free—or doomed—to overhear, to spy on the weaknesses and betrayals of others. His knowledge leads nowhere but to his own cynicism or despair.
But le Carré’s links to Conrad and Greene do not obscure his link to a broader, less exalted, tradition, that of the more traditional English spy novel, a genre that was from the start based on a strict Us versus Them scheme, first England against the Hun, then West against Moscow. This tradition, which le Carré twists, mocks, and transcends, begins with the turn-of-the-century British spy novels of William Tufnell Le Queux. (By way of acknowledging this, with brow arched, David Cornwell became le Carré—“the square”—in opposition to Le Queux—“the line.”) Le Queux (1864–1927) was a successful journalist, spy, and hack novelist after the English victory in the Boer War, a time when British imperialism was on high alert against the encroaching Hun.1 To combat a potential German invasion or infiltration, the British developed a secret service and Le Queux a romance of secrecy, with The Invasion of 1910 warning (in 1906) of the German invasion to come. More sophisticated espionage writers followed—Erskine Childers with his Edwardian spy-patriots and John Buchan with The Thirty-Nine Steps and Richard Hannay—but the pattern was the same: good, embattled England against the Kaiser and his invaders. Always the reader is made to feel the imminence of the threat, both within the story and in the world. These novels, too, were a form of warning and political propaganda.2 “You think that a wall as solid as the earth separates civilization,” someone says in Buchan’s 1913 novel, The Power House. “I tell you that the division is a thread, a sheet of glass.”
After World War II, the focus of evil shifted from Berlin to Moscow. There have been successful spy novels set outside the East-West struggle—le Carré’s The Little Drummer Girl centered on Israeli intelligence and the Palestinians—but for the most part the pattern of Us versus Them, the superpower conflict, prevailed, with the British playing an ancillary role to the American “Cousins” in the CIA. “As secret heroes in the making,” one of le Carré’s lesser spooks recounts,
“we had everything we needed: a righteous cause, an evil enemy, an indulgent ally, a seething world, women to cheer us, but only from the touchline, and best of all the Great Tradition to inherit, for the Circus in those days was still basking in its wartime glory. Almost all our leading men had earned their spurs by spying on the Germans. All of them, when questioned at our earnest, off-the-record seminars, agreed that when it came to protecting mankind against its own excesses, World Communism was an even darker menace than the Hun.”
Le Carré, of course, played with the formula. He charged into the cold war with a minimum of zeal—“I do believe, reluctantly, that we must combat communism,” he once told The Observer—and consistently reminded the reader that the line between good and evil was more often individual than national. Nevertheless, the cold war’s bipolar world of Moscow versus the West was his starting point.
With The Night Manager, the world has changed completely. There are no Russians. In fact, the enemy, the head of an enormous drugs and arms cartel, is English by birth, but almost stateless, a free-floating, untaxable embodiment of all things evil, who sometimes lives on a private island and is frequently at sea. For le Carré, such an enemy represents the sort of state-of-the-art corruption that secret services have done little to combat; in fact, as the Iran-contra scandal underscored, the worst are ready to trade in arms for national interests real or imagined.
The Night Manager is as taut a spy novel as one could hope for, full of le Carré’s signature plot swerves and ironic glimpses of the bureaucratic conflict in Whitehall and the United States. As always, he is incapable of writing a superfluous scene, and his dialogue still manages to combine cheek and threat, as if Nick and Nora had gone to Eton and Oxford then graduated to MI5:
“My name’s Leonard,” Burr announced, hauling himself out of Quayle’s office chair like someone about to intervene in a brawl. “I do crooks. Smoke? Here. Poison yourself.”
But for all the customary skill and smart talk, the truth is that le Carré is having no less difficulty finding his bearings in the new world than the aristocrats and politicians he has always skewered. So much of the pleasure of le Carré’s cold war novels lay in the way he created a shadow world that the reader imagined, somewhere, to exist. Now it has cruelly and suddenly disappeared. I can think of no other novelist associated with a specific atmosphere—not Faulkner, not Waugh—who ever had to deal with such complete and instantaneous obliteration. Even fifty years and a world of change later, we can imagine running into a piece of Yoknapatawpha in rural Mississippi; the class structures of England have eroded slowly and chaotically enough so that the comic sons of Waugh—Martin Amis in London Fields, for example—are writing, in their way, continuations of Decline and Fall.
Part of what made le Carré’s version of the cold war so fascinating was the way it rejected or manipulated the conventions of the spy novel and the political propaganda on both sides. Shading, ambiguity, and doubt: these were never much present in Le Queux or Buchan. But only the most programmatic reader could have ignored, for example, how alike Smiley and Karla were, secret sharers on either side of the Iron Curtain. Smiley represented the better side, and yet the bureaucracy that employed him was heartless, soft, frequently stupid. Karla represented a brutal tyranny and yet he defected for the love of his lost daughter. In many ways, Karla appeared to be the superior spy and his the superior service.
In The Night Manager the warring parties are, by le Carré’s standards, stock figures. The youngish hero, Jonathan Pine, is orphaned, rootless, wise, and haunted by memories of his own complicity in violence while he was working in the special services. He once killed a man while on military duty in Northern Ireland and he cannot shake the memory of a lover named Sophie who was murdered in Cairo.
Pine has left the service and has been working as a manager of the Hotel Meister Palace in Zurich, a four-star place in which to get lost. He savors his independence, his meals alone with a half-bottle of Pommard. No one knows him. “Even his Englishness was a well-kept secret.” The novel opens when two old nemeses reappear in Pine’s life: the arms and narcotics dealer Richard Onslow Roper (cited as “the worst man in the world”) and the British secret service, which wants Pine to help in their quest to effect the transfer of Roper from his private island in the Bahamas to a cell in Marion, Illinois. The service knows that when Pine was working for them in Cairo, Roper was responsible for the murder of Pine’s great and fleeting love, Sophie. In a terrifically complicated bit of plotting, the service is able to recruit Jonathan to pursue Roper. The service plays on Jonathan’s lingering guilt, and helps him to create a credible “legend,” a phony, yet documented, identity.
He first sets himself up as a mild eccentric on the southern coast of England, where he seduces one of the local women, appears to commit a murder, then disappears. Then he turns up in Quebec working in a small hotel as a cook. He seduces the hotelier’s daughter, providing her with a sexual adventure before her impending marriage to a stiff. In gratitude, she finds him the new passport he needs. Now in the Caribbean, Pine finds work as a cook on a boat where Roper is throwing a party. During the festivities two thugs, who are actually agents of the British secret service, kidnap Roper’s eight-year-old son. Pine foils the mock kidnapping according to plan, thereby winning his way into Roper’s confidence and entourage. Though it is unwise, he inevitably seduces Roper’s girl, Jed, a numbingly gorgeous caricature.
In fact, the women in “The Night Manager” are too often cartoonish:
Out of focus, Jed crosses her baby-pink legs and absentmindedly pulls the skirt of her bathrobe over them while she continues to study the menu. Whore! screams a voice inside Jonathan. Tramp! Angel! Why am I suddenly prey to these adolescent fantasies?
We’ll desert, the captain’s untamable daughter had whispered as she spread her sublime body over his. If I have to eat one more army dinner I’ll blow up this whole barracks single-handed. Fuck me, Jonathan. Make me a woman. Fuck me and take me somewhere I can breathe.
It is a very short path from this sort of thing to Pussy Galore. In fact, The Night Manager seems at moments like these to be a James Bond novel as written by a superior Ian Fleming. The Good Man hunts the Bad. Pine is physically superior, watchful, intelligent, passionate, and makes a superb crème brûlée. Roper is pure evil. He sells arms to terrorist thugs and drugs to little children. He is also rude to underlings and has a pretentious accent.
As always in le Carré, institutions tend toward unholy confusion, the elected and appointed leaders of even the right causes tend to corruption, and the upper classes stink of sanctimony. Once more le Carré attacks the espionage aristocrats, the “espiocrats.” Even the names are heavily ironic:
The River House is represented by an enormous Englishwoman in perfect curls and Thatcherite twin set, known universally as Darling Katie and officially as Mrs. Katharine Handyside Dulling, Economic Counselor of the British Embassy in Washington. For ten years Darling Katie has held the golden key to Whitehall’s special relationship with America’s numberless intelligence agencies. From Military to Naval to Air to State through Central and National to the omnipotent murmurers of the White House palace guard—from the sane to the harmlessly mad to the dangerously ridiculous—the secret overworld of American might is Katie’s parish, to explore, bludgeon, bargain with and win to her celebrated dinner table.
A few relatively honest bureaucrats must do battle against the rest who think only of their political self-interest and personal profit. They also manage to endanger the life of Pine, who has risked everything for them. That he survives their greed and incompetence is testament to his strength.
“We mustn’t condemn the barrel because of a few bad apples,” the perfectly named Rex Goodhew says. “This is still England. We are good people. Things may go amiss from time to time, but sooner or later honor prevails and the right forces win. I believe that.” In an elaborate sting set up by “the right forces,” Goodhew and Leonard Burr, justice does come to the arms dealer Sir Anthony Joyston Bradshaw and some profiteers in the intelligence business. The corruption, of course, continues.
This bureaucratic subplot, however, is not enough to carry the novel. It never was in the cold war novels and is not in The Night Manager. Pine’s pursuit of Roper is the heart of the novel, and it is here that le Carré stumbles. Le Carré has done a lot to make this new world his new bit of earth. He has, as he tells us in the acknowledgments, done a great deal of reading and research interviewing arms dealers, narcotics agents, and other sources. There is a fair amount of perfectly sound moralizing here about the insanity of arming dangerous states and doing nothing to stanch the flow of drugs, but the richness of detail and character, the strangeness one has grown to expect in the best le Carré novels, are not there. I felt on reading this novel like one blinded by the sun after hours in a dark place. It’s hard to adjust to all the glare. The novel is filled with glittering locations (Zurich, Land’s End, Quebec, the private tropical island, an enormous yacht) and establishing shots that speak too clearly of the screenplay to come.
In the end, Pine is victorious—or at least alive—and the credits roll over his return to the pastoral English shoreline where he lives out his life having found love with fair Jed and a new identity courtesy of the British government. Alas, there is no need for the epic film version that Smiley’s People required. This time le Carré has crafted a solid 100-minute Hollywood feature, a Goldfinger for grown-ups.
Le Carré is undoubtedly not going through a “premature demise,” as he said in Boston. He still has important things to say even as he exploits and subverts the conventions of the spy novel. Recently, he argued in an interview with Charlie Rose of PBS that the United States and the UN must now engage in “altruistic colonialism,” intervening around the globe whenever moral necessity demands. That bit of politically incorrect thinking may be the stuff of a new novel. But for the moment le Carré seems like the rest of us, in a state of transition, still trying to get his bearings in the new world beyond the old secret world. The Night Manager is the novel of his post-cold war disorientation.
August 12, 1993