Traitor's roots

A perfect spy is my favourite John Le Carre. I've loved it since I first read it shortly after it was published in the mid-1980s. It's got a real depth to it that transcends your average spy thriller (not that Le Carre's thrillers are ever average) and takes it into the heart of literary fiction. It was the last great Cold War thriller from Le Carre. The world was rapidly changing, and as the world changed Le Carre's stories had to change too to stay current. But the Cold War was where he made his reputation, it was the area he was most familiar with from his own days with the British Secret Service, and A perfect spy is both Le Carre's most personal and complex book.

Other Cold War thrillers - Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy, The spy who came in from the cold - examined the life of the spy, and the work they had to do. In some ways Tinker Tailor is related to Perfect spy. In Tinker Tailor the "good" spy George Smiley is tasked with uncovering the Russian agent within the Secret Service. And the whole book follows his quest, there's only a fairly brief section at the end where the mole is caught and interrogated. So the mole's particular reasons for betrayal are dealt with fairly cursorily - a vague idealogical affiliation with Moscow.

Re-reading Perfect Spy and thinking of Tinker Tailor it struck me that this was actually very typical of the way that traitors were portrayed throughout the Cold War. If a reason was given for their betrayal it was usually presented as being fairly straightforward : they were venal, or held radical political views. Yet many spies managed to hold their place within the establishment for many years - so they must have appeared to be in sympathy with the Intelligence Services they were serving. How did they manage to do this? This suggests that something rather more complicated was going on.

A perfect spy examines the roots of treachery, and suggests that it's all a lot more complicated than it may appear. Magnus Pym is the Head of Vienna Station, and is running the Czech spy networks for MI6. He's popular, clever, happily married, and about to be promoted. Then his father dies, and Magnus goes AWOL. Around the same time the CIA drop a bombshell, they've been running some routine checks, and suspect that Magnus is rather more closely involved with the Czech Secret Service than anyone has realised; in short he has been spying for the Czechs and by extension the Soviet Union for his whole career. As both his British and Czech controllers try to hunt him down, and his wife struggles to come to terms with what was real and what was just "cover" throughout their marriage, Pym starts to write his memoirs. He was trained to be a spy from childhood in a complicated life with a larger-than-life conman father. He certainly is a traitor, but what or who exactly has he betrayed?

It's a very dense read, but incredibly powerful. I've read it loads of times and still have to take a deep breath after finishing it and come up for air. It's one of the few Le Carre's where he actually writes really good female roles - Mary Pym is lovely, and also does a great job of outsmarting those who are supposed to be superior to her. The central characters are pure brilliance : Rick Pym, the conman father and his court of crooks and jesters, Jack Brotherhood, the MI6 controller, who's desperate to believe in Pym's innocence, and Axel, the witty Czech spy. I think it's probably no coincidence that Axel is one of the most attractive characters in the book. There are shades of the Devil in Paradise Lost here. Above them all stands Pym, the happy-go-lucky character who is tortured by his demons.

The earlier Cold War thrillers are brilliant if you love a great adventure story, but for real psychological depth this is the novel to read. Stunning stuff.


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