Le Carre’s not-so-se­cret ser­vice: el­e­vat­ing spy writ­ing to high lit­er­a­ture

Spies are nat­u­ral nov­el­ists, lur­ing oth­ers into their ar­ti­fi­cial world

The Australian - - ARTS - BEN MACINTYRE TO­MOR­ROW IN REVIEW Kirsten Tran­ter re­views A Legacy of Spies THE TIMES

After a stint as an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer in the Cold War, nearly 60 years of writ­ing and two dozen nov­els, John Le Carre em­bod­ies that great Bri­tish tra­di­tion where the craft of spy­ing meets the art of fic­tion. I share his fas­ci­na­tion with the world of es­pi­onage, so an in­vi­ta­tion to meet the mas­ter of spy­writ­ing was ir­re­sistible.

Re­cently, at a ho­tel in Bris­tol, I joined David Corn­well (his real name) and an Amer­i­can in­ter­viewer to talk about spies, spy­ing and spy­craft: the his­tory, obliq­uity and com­plex­ity of es­pi­onage, its re­la­tion­ship to our na­tional char­ac­ter and its role in the worlds of Don­ald Trump and Vladimir Putin.

Le Carre and I ap­proach spy­ing from dif­fer­ent ends of the same con­tin­uum. As some­one who worked in MI5 and MI6, he weaves the re­al­ity of es­pi­onage into fic­tion of great psy­cho­log­i­cal depth. I was also tapped up by MI6 just be­fore leav­ing univer­sity and went to a bizarre job in­ter­view with a man call­ing him­self “Ma­jor Hal­l­i­day”. Upset­tingly, he wore san­dals with socks. MI6 quickly and quite rightly con­cluded I was not suited to se­crecy. I am an out­side ob­server: I try to write books that read like nov­els but strictly ad­here to the facts of the past.

Two hours with Le Carre left me con­vinced of a cen­tral truth about this pe­cu­liarly Bri­tish trade: spy­ing and fic­tion writ­ing are not just sim­i­lar but grow from the same tap­root.

Spies and nov­el­ists cre­ate an ar­ti­fi­cial world and lure oth­ers into it. The more emo­tion­ally be­liev­able that world, the bet­ter the spy and the bet­ter the fic­tion.

Many of the coun­try’s finest nov­el­ists pre­vi­ously worked in in­tel­li­gence: Som­er­set Maugham spied for Bri­tain in Rus­sia be­fore the rev­o­lu­tion; John Buchan was an in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer in World War I; Ian Flem­ing worked for the chief of wartime naval in­tel­li­gence; and Gra­ham Greene, Comp­ton Macken­zie and Arthur Ran­some were all in MI6. I have rarely come across a spy who was not a frus­trated or an ac­tual writer of fic­tion.

The ar­chi­tects of Op­er­a­tion Mince­meat, the most ef­fec­tive de­cep­tion op­er­a­tion of World War II, were all would-be novel- ists, de­lib­er­ately set­ting out to bam­boo­zle the en­emy with a false re­al­ity. Spies are trained to in­vent and rein­vent them­selves, and oth­ers. Mans­field Cum­ming, the first “C” (as all MI6 chiefs are known), al­lowed the myth to spread that he had am­pu­tated his own leg with a penknife.

The nov­el­ist also ma­nip­u­lates his cast. As Le Carre put it when I met him: “You must con­tem­plate all the va­ri­eties of a per­son’s char­ac­ter. Could she be this? Could he be that? Can I turn him into this or that other per­son?”

Spies tell sto­ries that may be true, or half-true, or out­right lies. Span­ish dou­ble agent Juan Pu­jol, co­de­named “Garbo” by MI5 on ac­count of his act­ing abil­ity, in­vented no fewer then 23 sub­agents, each of whom fed dis­in­for­ma­tion back to the Ger­mans de­spite be­ing en­tirely fic­tional char­ac­ters. Greene based Our Man in Ha­vana, the story of a coun­ter­feit spy, on the Garbo case: fic­tion cre­ated a re­al­ity, which cre­ated fic­tion.

We are pre­dis­posed to be­lieve peo­ple who gather in­tel­li­gence in the same way that we in­vest, as read­ers, in the imaginary emo- tional re­al­ity of a novel. Politi­cians trea­sure clas­si­fied information be­cause it is se­cret, which does not nec­es­sar­ily ren­der it more re­li­able than openly ac­ces­si­ble information. In fact, it fre­quently makes it less so.

It is the shad­owy line be­tween truth and un­truth, seem­ing and be­ing, that makes spy­ing so in­trigu­ing to write about, in fic­tion and non­fic­tion, and so use­ful and dan­ger­ous in the real world. The un­cer­tainty of es­pi­onage is one of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of the mod­ern age. Tony Blair and Ge­orge W. Bush ap­proached the Iraq war in 2003 al­ready con­vinced that Sad­dam Hus­sein pos­sessed weapons of mass de­struc­tion, and that is what their in­tel­li­gence ser­vices duly con­cluded. The nar­ra­tive was al­ready writ­ten and the ev­i­dence was fit­ted into it. No one lied de­lib­er­ately. But a story was told that the lis­ten­ers wanted to hear. The murk­i­ness of the in­tel­li­gence world hangs over the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, amid ac­cu­sa­tions of covert Rus­sian ma­nip­u­la­tion and dodgy deal­ing dur­ing last year’s pres­i­den­tial elec­tion cam­paign. The fin­ger­prints of the Rus­sian in­tel­li­gence ser­vices are ev­ery­where and nowhere. Moscow has de­lib­er­ately mud­died the wa­ters to an im­pen­e­tra­ble opac­ity. The tricky task fac­ing Robert Mueller, the for­mer FBI di­rec­tor re­cently ap­pointed spe­cial coun­sel to in­ves­ti­gate Rus­sian in­ter­fer­ence, will be to es­tab­lish where the fic­tion ends and the re­al­ity be­gins. What­ever the out­come, the tale of the Trump pres­i­dency will be told through a story of spies.

Win­ston Churchill un­der­stood the in­ter­play be­tween fic­tion and truth in es­pi­onage work. “In the higher ranges of Se­cret Ser­vice work, the ac­tual facts of many cases were in every re­spect equal to the most fan­tas­tic in­ven­tions of ro­mance and melo­drama,” he wrote.

But it took Le Carre, a for­mer in­tel­li­gence of­fi­cer, to ex­plore the strange, morally fraught, seedy but glam­orous world of es­pi­onage in post­war Bri­tain, el­e­vat­ing spy writ­ing to high lit­er­a­ture. “If you really want to ex­am­ine the na­tional psy­chol­ogy,” he said, “it’s locked in the se­cret world.”

For more than a half-cen­tury, Le Carre has un­locked that world. His new book pub­lished next week, A Legacy of Spies, ex­am­ines the long shadow it still casts over us. No­body does it bet­ter.

I left our meet­ing more con­vinced than ever that the spy and the nov­el­ist are broth­ers in sub­terfuge, imag­i­na­tion and fab­ri­ca­tion. If Corn­well had not turned to fic­tion, he might well have ended up as “C”.

John Le Carre

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