Smiley’s people: John le Carré has created a world which will live on in his readers long after him

It was with a sense of unreality that I read the obituaries of David Cornwell, who under the pseudonym of John le Carré elevated the spy thriller to the front ranks of serious literature.

I had a feeling of dissonance, or mental dislocation, between the writer as a person and the characters he created, the most memorable being George Smiley, that most secret of secret agents.

Bespectacled and dumpy in his ill-fitting suits, Smiley is the antithesis of Ian Fleming’s ‘suave and savage’ James Bond, with his taste for martini cocktails, fast cars and faster women.

Smiley’s arch adversary is his Soviet counterpart, the inscrutable Karla, but the tortuous trail the British agent must follow to reach his final encounter with his elusive foe takes him through the shadowlands of the secrets of his own heart, forever hostage to the betrayals of his beautiful and ever unfaithful wife, Anne.

This identification of the intimate enemy within becomes even more subtle after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the ‘evil empire’ of the Soviet Union. Smiley’s subterranean war between an ‘Us’ and a ‘Them’ becomes ever more complex, uncovering layers of treachery and deceit not in a malign ‘Other’ but in a maze of mirrors in which the persued and the persuer become one.

So real had been Smiley and his world to me, that I had, without conscious thought, detached them from the personal reality of the writer. I knew little about le Carré, apart from the fact that he himself had a background in the British intelligence establishment, that he shunned the public limelight bestowed by literary honours and state awards, and that his father, Ronnie, who is reprised as Magnus Pym’s father in A Perfect Spy, was a congenital conman who in the young David Cornwell might have implanted early intimations of the Judas kiss of perfidy.

Smiley will continue to live on in his readers, in a twist in the tale that would have won le Carré’s approval, with fiction memorialising fact in the ultimate act of espionage.

In a way, we are all Smiley’s people.



Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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