The imaginary world of David Cornwell, better known by his pseudonym John le Carré, is decidedly grey.
Not only when he is writing about the autumnal mist over Hampstead Heath, but even with settings in Central America and the Caribbean (as in The Tailor of Panama) or Africa (as in The Mission Song and The Constant Gardener), nothing is really black and white.
From his earliest works such as Call for the Dead and A Murder of Quality, le Carré sets himself apart from authors such as Ian Fleming, in that the former deals with battles of the mind and the intellect, without resorting to fast cars and fancy gadgets. I remember reading le Carré reference to James Bond, probably the world most famous fictional spy, as an “international gangster” and someone without a single shred of conscience.
A recurring theme that runs through much of le Carré’s works is the morality, or lack thereof, of spying. George Smiley, the author’s most famous hero, does battle not only with the Soviet spymaster Karla, but also with the hypocrisy as well as the stupid, self-serving individuals that run the British secret service. Indeed, he seems to hold a very cynical view of the competence and intelligence of (oxymoron indeed) those who operate within the “intelligence” world. In The Tailor of Panama, le Carré’s homage to Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, and probably his most entertaining novel, a MI-6 agent is sent to Panama to gather intelligence and protect British interest. He in turn recruits the services of a well-connected tailor, and his completely fabricated intelligence reports lead to a U.S. invasion of Panama at the end of the story.
With the fall of the Soviet bloc, the author turns his attention to the rest of the world, constantly reinventing himself. In The Little Drummer Girl, le Carré’s first non Cold War novel, an Israeli spymaster recruits a young actress to discover the whereabouts of a Palestinian terrorist. She succeeds, but not before suffering a mental breakdown due to contradiction of her divided sympathies. In The Constant Gardener, a mild-manner Foreign Service diplomat in Kenya investigates the murder of his activist wife, exposing a sinister conspiracy connected to an international pharmaceutical firm and corrupt British politicians. In much of le Carré’s writings, I detect a deep-seeded anger against the stupidity of men in power and men of power, and he uses his stories to lash out in anger against the selfishness and shortsightedness of humanity.
As a rule, film adaptations of le Carré’s novels never really do them justice. There are simply too many layers in the stories that are literally lost in the transference from print to celluloid. The film version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is simply a travesty. For me, the most successful adaptions of his novels have been in television, namely the BBC’s wonderful television adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. Television allows the luxury of time to tell the whole story, and the BBC captures the faded colour of the secret world and the tragic existence of men who operate in shadows. To top it off, there is the magisterial performance by Alec Guinness, who, in the author’s words, “Stole the character from me.”
Like any great writer, le Carré’s fiction is a mirror for the age we live in. Through his stories, he shines a bright light on the dark recess of our conscience and our soul, and presents a unique perspective into the moral conundrum we face in our own existence.
David Cornwell, may you rest in peace.