In a house on a rugged outcropping of cliffs near Penzance, a landscape so perilous and remote that poverty-strapped villagers lured merchant ships to wreck there two centuries ago, John le Carré wakes every morning and writes. In the afternoon he takes long hikes or swims. Sometimes old friends from MI6 come to visit. He is the most acclaimed spy novelist in the world, a bestselling author with multiple motion pictures in the works, feted by the likes of Philip Roth and Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2013, when Dwight Garnervisited him there to conduct a rare interview for The New York Times, le Carré had lived in this spot, pursuing his vocation over the course of 23 novels, for almost 50 years.
The Times article included two photographs of le Carré, in his early and later career. In 1964, a year after he wrote his breakout bestseller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, le Carré’s face was uncertainly constructed of a jutting chin and recessed cheeks, held together by thin lips and a look of apprehension, like one of the stock secondary players in period film noirs. Age has made the face aggressively distinct. The current photograph shows flaring eyebrows, concentrated eyes, and a thin-lipped mouth pursed around creases that are now deep and slanting. The overall impression is a combination of energy and statis, fierce intensity and willed distance. Le Carré is out in a kind of cold, but it’s his cold and he inhabits it with brio. “Keep calm and le Carré on,” says a sign in his study, a gift from his children.
Le Carré’s isolationism is not just a posture. It’s the product of a fragmentary, itinerant upbringing in 1930s Britain that began with his mother abandoning him at age five. He was raised by his father, a con artist who, in le Carré’s telling, raced horses with the Lord Mayor of London in good times and hid from both gangsters and police in bad. The book of le Carré’s that Philip Roth called the greatest English novel of the postwar period, A Perfect Spy, is inspired by his father. Regarding his mother, he told Garner: “If there are times when I have been ruthless in my life, and most of us have been ruthless, [it is possibly because of] that chunk of my life that passed me by, which is a mother’s love.”
Intense alienation and an acute appreciation of how to play the angles — le Carré’s early life defines the parameters of his fiction. He has always been a distancing writer, sorting through the confusions of the second half of the 20th century with cold concentration, his tone alternating between amusement and disgust. People commonly conflate le Carré’s aloofness with his subject: spy runners operating in the moral gray zone beyond society’s margins and so on. But this image doesn’t actually reflect le Carré’s view of espionage, at least judging by the memories he shared with Garner of working at MI5 and MI6 in the late 1950s and early 1960s. “[It was] like working on a great newspaper. They were really funny people, not institutionalized, not too corporate in their minds and often very bright with curious interests.”
Le Carré’s novels are about these skilled professionals and how they fare in modern politicized bureaucracies. How often do they prevail; how often do political and corporate influences shut them down; how often does the system work the way we would hope it does? These questions are what make his work more than genre fiction, especially at a time when large corporate and government institutions have become the dominant features of life. Le Carré has been unerringly tuned in to how these institutions function and has reproduced it imaginatively in his fiction for 50 years.
The protagonists le Carré uses as his windows onto this world are, like him, highly skilled and intelligent outsiders. Spies, former spies, actresses, idealistic lawyers, itinerant ideologues, failing bankers: these are le Carré’s people, the detritus of the postwar world, caught between colonialism and democratic capitalism and struggling to find their way. To them, the old ways are artificial and stifling; the new ones are drab and homogenized; and the political system is not so much corrupt as blithely self-perpetuating. So they work on the boundaries, fighting to preserve their lives from contamination by the powers-that-be. Le Carré’s spies and their agents accrue their tenuous senses of purpose from being on the better side of the Cold War fight and from being good at what they do. Most of le Carré’s readers don’t exist this far on the margins, but he understands his people enough to make their lives and motivations feel real.
But since the end of the Cold War, le Carré and his characters have been in crisis. 1989 effectively cleaved his career in two. In the Cold War period, le Carré’s vision was stabilized by the presence of the Soviet Union, which was, after all, far worse than the West. After the USSR disappeared, so did le Carré’s counterweight. In the meantime, the worrisome tendencies of democratic capitalism he had identified as early as 1965 were accelerating: economies increasingly shaped by high finance, populations restive with growing inequality, and governments hollowed out by budget-cutting and hyper-politicization. Was this what the Cold War was won for?
9/11 crystallized this vantage point, giving le Carré a clear foil through which to channel his critiques. George W. Bush’s “War on Terror” was, in his telling, the response of a government so corporatized and politicized that it could no longer serve even the immediate interests of the society over which it presided. Of the five novels le Carré has published since 9/11, two have dealt with terrorism policy directly. All of them portray Western society corrupting itself, watched helplessly by the same credentialed outsiders who have always populated his fiction, only now their room to maneuver has been further constricted.
Meanwhile le Carré remains in Penzance, surrounded by the rustic pleasures of an older time, removed from the mad whirl that dominates his fiction yet sounding very much like one of the baroque characters who populates it. (According to Garner, le Carré’s first inspiration for Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was an image of his hero, George Smiley: “a solitary and embittered man living alone on a Cornish cliff, staring up at a single black car as it wove down the hillside towards him.”) He is inured to or unconcerned with the detractors who say his politics have slanted his writing. He’s seen western forms of government up close for 50 years and he’s seen how they’ve changed. In his view, he hasn’t shifted course. He’s just identified a madness that’s been growing for a quarter century.
The novel in which le Carré addresses the world 9/11 created most directly, A Most Wanted Man, is set in Hamburg. This is the place where Muhammad Atta, the mastermind of 9/11, planned the attacks: imaginably, the German authorities have been dogged by what they missed ever since. The novel is a demonstration of what this post-9/11 pressure means in practice. A confused young Muslim Chechen named Issa sneaks into the city, looking to claim the inheritance left to him by his father, a brutal Russian general. He connects with Annabel Richter, a German lawyer whose human rights work is a way of rebelling against her parents, snobbish and influential players in the diplomatic and legal corps. Annabel Richter then connects with Tommy Brue, the banker whose father laundered Issa’s father’s money when the Soviet Union fell and Russian criminals streamed west with their goods. Tommy, aged 60, heading a bank still running on his late father’s glory, has his own issues with family. Annabel’s arrival becomes an opportunity to plot for his escape.
Watching all of this is Gunther Bachmann, a smart, driven spy runner appointed by the newly formed national task force in Berlin to plant long-running sources in the Muslim community, the long game of espionage le Carré has written about for half a century. Issa, with his uncertain loyalties and deep pockets, is the right person to infiltrate a target Bachmann has been watching: Dr. Abdullah, a respected Muslim scholar and founder of a powerful charity whom Bachmann suspects is funneling a portion of the contributions to terrorist groups. The question is whether Bachmann’s superiors will let him see his proposed operation through.
This is the parallel set-up that’s served le Carré so well in his past novels — balancing well-drawn characters with a minute yet suspenseful examination of how the bureaucracies of national security work. It was the signal achievement of 1983’s The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré’s first novel addressing Muslim terrorism, whose character roster almost exactly resembles A Most Wanted Man: a lost but talented young woman, a drifting but magnetic older man, and a spymaster playing the long game in the face of enormous political pressure. But in A Most Wanted Man,le Carré has much less success with the synthesis.
As always, le Carré handles the operational side superbly. His view of the politicization of intelligence is precise, clear, and believable. The committee Bachmann reports to is cleaved between foreign-service liberals on one side and domestic security neocons along with their US allies on the other. The illustrative moment in this conflict is the meeting when Bachmann has to make his appeal to the committee. He’s asking for them to hold off arresting Issa and eventually Abdullah, to coopt them rather than brutalizing them. It’s a plea for playing the long game in the face of the political risks of Issa or Abdullah going rogue and detonating a bomb on the Hamburg streets.
Le Carré shrewdly gives the meeting to us entirely through Bachmann’s eyes. He’s the skilled operative shut out from the political decisions that will decide the success of his mission, nervously and resentfully steering his way through a thicket of obscure interests:
Which of these men and women with their affable smiles and sideways glances was his friend for the day, and which his enemy? Which dark committee, ministry, religious persuasion or political party owned their allegiance? To his knowledge, only a handful had ever heard a bomb explode, but in the long, silent war for the leadership of their Service, they were case-hardened veterans.
The main enemy turns out to be Martha, an aggressive, hearty CIA agent acting as an “observer” who nonetheless wields tremendous soft influence over the committee. Martha doesn’t want to wait; she wants to take out Issa now. Her objection to Gunther’s plan is a small masterpiece of argument and characterization:
Okay. Answer me this, please. Are you boys really telling me you can pull this thing off? I mean, Jesus Christ, let’s just see what we’ve got here. One goofy liberal woman lawyer on the verge of a nervous breakdown. One semidefunct British banker who has the hots for her. And one semi-Chechen freedom fighter on the run from Russian justice who flies paper airplanes, listens to music and thinks one day he’ll be a doctor. And you boys truly think you can put them all together in one room, and they’re going to nail a dyed-in-the-wool Islamist money launderer who’s spent his entire life seeing round corners? Do I have this right? Or am I being a little soft in the head by any chance?
Compressed into one authoritative paragraph is the neocons’ self-justification and the source of their appeal. It’s a kinder and gentler articulation of Dick Cheney’s “one-percent doctrine” that led us into Iraq, but the point is the same. Any threat to your citizens, whether a one percent chance that Issa will go rogue or a one percent chance of WMD’s, is unacceptable, so you quash it immediately. You don’t spend time with myopic experts like Bachmann, worrying about long-term consequences or opportunities lost to quietly infiltrate the enemy camp. You act quickly and decisively and make sense of the collateral damage later. It’s a compelling argument in democracies where government trust is on the wane and partisanship is on the rise and no one wants to take the responsibility for long-term thinking. Le Carré knows enough about espionage operations that his illustration of this trend never feels schematic.
Where A Most Wanted Man falls off is when it comes to its characters. Three hundred pages of precisely constructed espionage is not long enough to let people live and breathe. The Little Drummer Girl, for example, was 500 pages. This was enough space to get deeply into the mind of Charlie, a young actress who, like Annabel, is a “goofy liberal […] on the verge of a nervous breakdown.” But, crazy as she was, under le Carré’s eye Charlie became a comprehensible character: a talented woman who had no way of channeling her enormous reserves of intensity and good will. We were with her every wincing step of the way, as she alternately fought and acquiesced to her spy runners, her best of hope finding a life purpose.
Annabel is a less hopeful version of Charlie, so lost in a frigid world that she’s poured her hopes into Issa, a cipher of a man more lost than she is. But le Carré doesn’t put in the work to make her motivations compelling: he blares them in stream-of-consciousness declarations which teeter into the didactic. (“I’m doing it for my client Issa. I’m doing it for life over law. I’m doing it for me.”) Tommy Brue is even worse, because le Carré can’t resist drawing his stifling bourgeois existence so sharply that it veers into cliché. His arch and civilized second wife has a lover both of them know about; his estranged daughter lives near an ashram in San Francisco; he calls her for the first time in a year and is told she is about to have a baby; and on and on, until Tommy’s glimmer of pathos collapses soddenly into the maudlin.
Even Gunther is not a fully dynamic character. Le Carré doesn’t have time to make him anything more than a driver of the plot, the good agent afflicted by the bad system. When your opponents are as bad as Martha, with her “ship to ship voice,” “ample body,” and predatorial grip, how could anyone fault you for anything? She’s not only noxious politically, but personally as well.
You read these characters and you get a sudden image: the weathered, intense hiker sitting down to write each morning in the study on the cliffs in Penzance, his main sources of information the newspapers and the spies who come to visit, watching society disintegrate from afar. The hollowing-out of the post-Cold War West has brought out all the distancing tendencies embedded in his personality. He’s not concerned with Annabel or Tommy or Gunther or Issa; he’s concerned with them as examples of how the system is broken. Le Carré is writing about lost souls, but only in shorthand.
The film A Most Wanted Man, which premiered in late July, performs a purifying function for le Carré’s later work by making his intention plain. Reviews of the film have focused on Philip Seymour Hoffman’s powerful performance as Gunther, but what’s more crucial is that Gunther is the star in the first place. Someone — the director Anton Corbjin or the screenwriter Andrew Bovell — realized that this story was essentially a procedural posing a single question. How well, post-9/11, would political concerns allow a skilled professional spy to do his job?
The film opens with six lines of text explaining the German authorities’ 9/11 intelligence failure, then fades in to Issa arriving in Hamburg. It’s almost like the opening of Law and Order, and the next hour and a half drives the resemblance home. The film is uniquely faithful to le Carré’s operational savvy: it spends most of its time letting us watch Bachmann slowly build his case, fact by seemingly insignificant fact. A random picture of Issa, caught by one of Gunther’s young, sharp-eyed subordinates, leads him to Annabel, who leads him to Brue. Gunther’s people tail their quarries through modern hotel lobbies, run-down Turkish neighborhoods, hip Hamburg bars. But the base of operations is intelligence headquarters: the sinisterly modern building where, every so often, Bachmann will retire outside and light a cigarette, watching the comings and goings of his bureaucratic enemies. The crucial decisions get made in these gleaming towers, in fluorescently lit rooms with floor-to-ceiling windows and bright furniture.
But real life is out in the darkly lit Hamburg streets, where Tommy, Annabel, and Issa live. All three characters are played faithfully to le Carré’s vision. Willem Dafoe makes for an upright, desperately lonely Tommy: his first second on screen — face creased, posture rigid — makes you wince for the discomfort of a man caught in a life he didn’t choose. Rachel McAdams is suitably rigorous and determined as Annabel, desperate to hide her uncertainty. Grigoriy Dobrygin as Issa is vulnerable and intense, the personification of the wandering primal soul. But next to Hoffman’s Gunther, all three are just flickers on the screen. He’s the middle man, the one who has to balance the state and its citizens, the person whose success or failure will answer the story’s question.
Because the film focuses so closely on Gunther, it has the leisure to make him more than an agent of the plot. He’s a real, complex person, whose strengths and weaknesses are brought out in the film by a counterpart every bit his equal: Martha, as envisioned by Robin Wright. Wright’s Martha is a normal-looking woman: nicely dressed, calm, occasionally ironic. Next to her, Gunther is a nightmare, a flask-toting, overweight man whose idea of masculinity is to knock down a drunk at a bar. (“Trying to impress me, Gunther?” Martha asks with a quiet smile.) He’s the skilled professional, but he’s also the man who rides his skill too hard. It’s his excuse for everything he lacks, like political savvy and self-control. She is realistic and observant, and she knows what the new system will and won’t allow. The film becomes an evenhanded test of their two approaches, the action of the plot punctuated by their rendezvous. It’s a bureaucratic contest of wills: a single shot is never fired and what violence is inflicted comes through a car crash.
The reason we end up rooting for the fierce and stolid Gunther is that he’s the public servant we all wish existed: he understands people and they factor into his calculations. “Every good man,” he says in probably the film’s most obvious nod to its theme, “has a little bit of bad.” People are complicated and for governments to serve them they need to understand that. But Bachmann can no longer be a ready middleman between the state and its citizens, because the new order allows for less and less of this kind of professional human engagement. We’d all prefer a system where Bachmann has more room, and it’s probably the pressures of this new order that’s turned him into the extreme man he is. As the film runs down to its final minutes, the focus is still on Gunther, desperately trying to hold things together: the politicians, the citizens, his end game. The tension becomes almost unbearable. Whether this man succeeds or fails is the key to understanding the new dispensation, the world in which we live.
This film is what le Carré, out on the Penzance cliffs, should have written from the start. He muddles his message because he’s still trying to craft believable characters when he doesn’t really want to. He wants to write political tracts embedded in brilliantly rendered suspense stories. Le Carré is no longer a great novelist, but he remains our foremost chronicler of the governing mindset, still uniquely capable of giving a cool, gripping accounting of the modern state and the people who populate it. Considering current events, we should appreciate him for what he offers, now more than ever.