The mo­ti­va­tion for bring­ing Ge­orge Smi­ley out of re­tire­ment? Plain anger, as John le Carre ex­plains to Bryan Ap­p­le­yard

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

Does David Corn­well, better known as John le Carre, ad­mire Ge­orge Smi­ley, his most cel­e­brated spy? “He is the best of me, the most ra­tio­nal,’’ he says in an in­ter­view to mark the re­lease of his new novel, A Legacy of Spies, in which Smi­ley makes a come­back.

“I ad­mire his com­mit­ment to his task and his sense of re­spon­si­bil­ity to hu­mankind. In­so­far as I am ca­pa­ble of self-love, I love him.”

Smi­ley was born in 1961, in Corn­well’s first novel, Call for the Dead. He was a spy him­self at the time, hence his need for a pseu­do­nym, and he says he car­ried Smi­ley around in his di­plo­matic bag­gage.

“I fin­ished another lit­tle book about him [ A Mur­der of Qual­ity, 1962], then I wanted some­thing big for him. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was sort of spun round for him. I gave him a job as the ob­serv­ing eye, the painful eye of con­form­ity to op­er­a­tional ne­ces­sity.”

Smi­ley has al­ways been his “se­cret sharer”, “an unan­nounced com­pan­ion with whom I am shar­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence, an imag­i­nary fig­ure”. And they share one big, sad se­cret.

“I sup­pose what Smi­ley and I have in com­mon is that we find it dif­fi­cult to re­mem­ber hap­pi­ness. It’s not some­thing that comes nat­u­rally to me, I have to work on it. I do ex­pe­ri­ence ful­fil­ment with my chil­dren and my grand­chil­dren.”

Now Smi­ley is back in A Legacy of Spies. The news was a sen­sa­tion be­cause, first, Corn­well is not alone in lov­ing Smi­ley — every­body does — and, sec­ond, he once said he had fin­ished with him. Now he knows they’ll be to­gether un­til the end.

They are roughly the same age. Corn­well will be 86 next month. “Smi­ley and I have caught up in age and in at­ti­tude.”

This is harm­less cheat­ing. A pedan­tic read­ing of the books would sug­gest Smi­ley is some­where be­tween 102 and 111. But pedants tend to miss the big pic­ture, so here it is.

Last year, Corn­well’s novel The Night Man­ager be­came a glob­ally suc­cess­ful TV minis­eries. Every­body wanted a fol­low-up, and the au­thor was called in to kick around a few ideas cen­tred on his first best­seller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. That fol­low-up is on hold, but the ex­pe­ri­ence drew Corn­well back to the char­ac­ters in that novel, and even more so to those, pri­mar­ily Smi­ley, in the later (and greater) Tinker Tai­lor Sol­dier Spy.

“That book [ The Spy Who Came in from the Cold] was writ­ten in a kind of blind anger when we were all be­ing thrown away, so I wanted to look at it again now and see what might have hap­pened,’’ he says.

“Spies have chil­dren, and chil­dren they don’t even tell you about. They have big­ger con­cerns than they ac­tu­ally re­veal.”

The blind anger that, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, cre­ated the doomed Alec Lea­mas and his lover Liz Gold, was matched by a new rage that led to A Legacy of Spies.

“I wrote it in a bit of a frenzy through Trump and Brexit. I de­spise the whole Brexit op­er­a­tion, as Smi­ley does. One gov­ern­ment af­ter another blamed Europe for its own fail­ures be­cause they never in­vested in the con­cept of a united Europe.”

In the new novel, the past re­turns thanks to a le­gal ac­tion brought against MI6 over the events sur­round­ing the deaths of Lea­mas and Gold. Public ex­po­sure threat­ens the now glitzy, tight-suited in­hab­i­tants of “Spy­land Be­side the Thames”, the agency’s “shock­ingly os­ten­ta­tious new head­quar­ters” in Vaux­hall. Peter Guil­lam, once Smi­ley’s deputy, is called back from re­tire­ment (though there is no such thing in MI6).

Re­veal­ing any­thing more would be a spoiler, but I think I can say this: Smi­ley moves in and out of the ac­tion in the past be­fore, fi­nally, ap­pear­ing in the present. Guil­lam asks him what all their work had been for. Eng­land? No. Europe.

“I think his whole ge­n­e­sis in life, his pri­vate dream, as he now ex­presses it, is the sal­va­tion of Europe,’’ Le Carre says. “That was, for him, the bat­tle front of the Cold War; for him, that was where the soul of Europe was be­ing fought for. So, when he looks back on it all — or I do, if you like — he sees fu­til­ity.”

That Bri­tain lost both the hot war and the en­su­ing cold one is the theme that haunts the books and the man. In part, he is crit­i­cal of the Amer­i­can be­hav­iour from 1945 on­wards.

“We were ab­so­lutely broke. The Amer­i­cans made us pay for ev­ery bul­let and ev­ery bad boat they sent us. At the same time as we were dis­man­tling Ger­many, they were re­build­ing it.

John le Carre at home in Hamp­stead

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