“A Perfect Spy” by John le Carré

I’m not so sure why I left it so late to read John le Carré. I have long enjoyed intelligent, well-written thrillers, and my favourite Graham Geene novel, The Human Factor, was a consequence of Greene very consciously entering into John le Carré territory. So it was high time, I decided, to read at least one by the acknowledged master of the genre, and I decided to go for one generally acknowledged to be among his best – A Perfect Spy. After all, even allowing for overstatement one expects from blurbs, it’s hard not to be impressed by the quote from Philip Roth printed on the cover: “The best English novel since the War”.

In retrospect, I am not sure that this was the best introduction to le Carré’s fictional world. Oh, it’s impressive enough – but it’s not purely a spy thriller: much of its formidable 750 or so pages is given to material that is not, strictly speaking, thriller material. Perhaps to begin with I should have picked an unambiguous thriller– maybe Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, also generally reckoned to be amongst le Carré’s finest. For although A Perfect Spy is an engrossing read throughout, it is noticeable that the tension markedly ratchets up when the purely thriller elements come to the forefront. The scenes, for instance, in which Brotherhood goes off on his own to track Magnus down indicate a very accomplished thriller writer, and I, for one, wanted a bit more of this kind of stuff. But that was clearly not the main purpose of this novel: the central thrust of this work deals with more internal, psychological matters.

The psychological studies contained in the other parts of the novel are certainly very fine, but where, in a conventional thriller, they would be introduced to support the plot, here it’s the plot that exists to support the psychology. In other words, this novel is not plot-led, and any expectation in that direction on the part of the reader is bound to be disappointed.

The genre of the spy thriller offers obvious opportunities to explore several important themes – morality, loyalty, betrayal, personal identity, and so on. Indeed, the genre itself seems almost designed to tackle such themes. What does it do to the human personality when one commits acts which, under normal circumstances, can only be judged as immoral? Sure, one may do such things out of loyalty to a concept of a “greater good”, such as the welfare of one’s country; but what happens when other loyalties conflict with this? What happens when personal loyalties interact and interfere with these broader loyalties? What happens to the human psyche when deception becomes an integral part of one’s life, when one has to keep secrets and lie through the teeth even to one’s own family? What happens when one has to acquire different layers to one’s mental make-up? Does there continue to exist a centre that holds? Or is one’s personality merely like the onion in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt – merely layer after accumulated layer with no real core?

The central character of A Perfect Spy is Magnus Pym, a diplomat who is also an agent. A double agent, as it turns out. He is a man of many secrets, many different layers, and no-one, not even perhaps himself, is quite aware of what, if anything, really lies beneath all these layers – whether or not the onion in this case actually has a core. After the death of his father early in the novel, something inside Magnus seems to snap: he walks away from everything – his colleagues, his career, his wife and son – and, incognito, takes refuge in a seaside lodging house in Devon, scribbling long, furious accounts of himself and of his past life to his teenage son in boarding school, and to Jack Brotherhood, his erstwhile mentor in “The Firm”. The novel consists of two alternating narrative voices – that of Pym himself, as, with increasing bitterness, he communicates his life story both to his son and to Brotherhood; and a more objective third person narration, depicting the search for an agent who, it now appears, had more secrets than “The Firm” had realised, and who, it is feared, may now have defected. The subjective first person narration, increasingly febrile, interacts with and counterpoints the more objective third person narration. I suppose any narrative structured in this manner recalls Bleak House, and personally, I really don’t know that it is wise for even so accomplished a novelist as John le Carré to invite comparison with Dickens at his finest. But if we put comparisons aside, the double narrative does on the whole work well.

As we approach the climactic sequence of the novel, the two narratives converge; but, given how very long it has taken to get to this stage, the pay-off isn’t, perhaps, quite as thrilling as it should have been. There’s no denying, however, le Carré does write engaging prose, and he knows also how to pace and structure a complex narrative. No doubt, Graham Greene would have done all this with greater economy, but economy in itself need not be seen as a virtue: le Carré takes his time, certainly, but crucially, he never bores the reader. He has sufficient confidence in his own abilities to slow the pace down as and when he wants to, in the full knowledge that he has the reader’s attention, and he need not therefore rush. The result is not always the “rattling good read” that some readers may demand from a thriller, but it most certainly does hold the reader’s attention. However, while Pym’s accounts of his early life are engrossing, perhaps they aren’t quite engrossing enough: there were certainly times when I wanted the novel to return to the more obvious thriller material, for when it did, the tension noticeably increased.

The story Magnus has to tell of his life is a remarkable one. It is dominated by his father, a big time crook and confidence man who, despite his charm, or, perhaps, because of it, has caused immense suffering to a great many people. From the very beginning, Magnus has to involve himself in deception, and the skills he learns in the process make him the “perfect spy” of the title. But now, with the burden of his father’s presence lifted, Magnus has to take stock of himself, and ask difficult questions. What lies beyond all the lies, beyond all the deception? His fear is that for all his sophistication, he may be no more than the amoral crook his father had been, using other humans merely for his own ends; or even worse, that there is nothing at all at the centre of his personality once all the lies and deceptions have been stripped away – that the onion doesn’t really have a core.

The novel is not without its problems. Once the realisation is reached of what Magnus truly is, where is there then to go? What is there for the novel to do other than merely fizzle out? So long and so patient a build-up needed, I think, a bigger denouement. But the journey to this end had been a thoughtful one, and an entertaining one, and certainly makes me keen to try out other works by this writer. But I’d like to read him in a more purely “thriller” mode: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I think, beckons.


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on September 25, 2011 at 10:03 pm

    Hmmm. I think you are in danger of disappointment if you expect to see Le Carre in ‘purely thriller mode’, whatever that it. Personally I’m not so hung up on genre expectations.
    Back to ‘A Perfect Spy’: I think it is worse than you think, I don’t just think that the plot is just there to serve a psychological exploration, I suspect that the psychological exploration is there to serve a political statement.
    Apart from what appears to be his crude reactionary stance against social climbing upstarts (and not just in the figure of Magnus), I also suspect that Le Carre uses the symbol of the shared code of Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus as a way of comparing the cold war to the 30 years war. My admittedly ignorant understanding of the 30 years war is that its supposed ideological starting points eventually became irrelevant to its prosecution. I suspect Le Carre is saying something similar about the cold war, and this works in parallel with his psychological analysis.
    I don’t have the time or the inclination to write an essay on this, but the fact that we can see different things in this work is one of the pleasures of literature.


    • When a writer depicts something, I don’t know that we should necessarily read into it either condemnation or approbation – unless., of course, the writer makes his or her own views clear. Magnus’ father was a crook, and, when he had the money, he climbed a few rungs in the social ladder. I can’t see anything here to suggest an implicit moral along the lines of “Thou shalt not climb up the social ladder”.

      I think you’re probably right in that in referring to Grimmelshausen’s Simplicissimus, le Carré does deaw a parallel between the 30 Years War and the Cold War. I don’t think, though, that any equivalence is implied between Soviet Block communism and the democracy of the Western world. Such an equivalence would be foolish indeed, despite the many crimes that have been committed by Western nations. But it does seem to me a reasonable point to make that while ideological differences may be prominent from a bird’s eye perspective, at ground level, even if one fights for the – as it were – “Good Side”, one must in the line of duty commit a great many acts that can only be described as immoral. So at this level, at least, the moral issues become more blurred. To make such a point certainly does not imply equivalence.

      It is indeed hard to see how a spy thriller can be intellectually satisfying if this moral ambiguity is not explored.


  2. I still highly recommend Robt. Littell, Himadri. I believe you may enjoy his writing. You don’t have to, but try to read his output in order of publication. It’s enjoyable to watch him evolve as time goes by.

    Have fun! 🙂



    • Hello Eric, I know you’ve mentioned Robert Littell to me before ( and I believe his son is quite a prominent author as well). I shall certainly give him a go when I next feel like reading a spy thriller. I want to read Tinker, Tailor… As well, though!


  3. Enjoy whatever you read, H.

    I’m currently reading an post-apocalyptic novel called Swan Song by Robt. McCammon.



  4. excellent review. And if you did go on to read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I’d be interested to hear what you thought of it.


    • Hello, and sorry for the late reply,
      I’m raid my good intentions on this score weren’t followed up. None of my reading pans ever seem to hold – I’m always distracted by some other book … But yes, I do still plan to read more by la carre, and Tinker tailor Soldier Spy is high on the list.


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