Le Carre: The spy who almost went out into the cold

John Le Carre was tempted to defect to the Soviet Union when he worked for MI6 during the Cold War in the early Sixties. “I wasn’t tempted ideologically, but when you spy intensively and you get closer and closer to the border . . . it seems such a small step to jump . . . and, you know, find out the rest,” he tells the Sunday Times.

As a British Foreign Service officer based in Germany, he knew how defectors were spirited across the Iron Curtain and described the manoeuvres vividly in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, one of his most famous thrillers published while he was still in the Foreign Service in 1963.

Le Carre — real name David John Moore Cornwell — was a member of the British Foreign Service from 1959 to 1964 after teaching at Eton from 1956 to 1958. His secret service career ended prematurely when his cover was blown by another former British agent, Kim Philby, who defected to Moscow in 1963 and revealed the identities of scores of British agents, many of whom were subsequently killed.

The Sunday Times says:

“It seems that in 1987 le Carré was offered the chance of a meeting… with the traitor (Kim Philby), fixed up through a shadowy Russian intermediary…  But le Carré demurred; he could not dine with Philby. “I just couldn’t do it. I said no.”

Why? “I just couldn’t do it.” He pauses for a moment. “There was always an instinct towards corruption in him. And remember, he was responsible for sending countless British agents to their deaths, to be killed – 40 or more in Albania . . . ”

Le Carre also answers questions about his feud with Salman Rushdie whose Satanic Verses he criticised as an affront to Muslims. But his own words now may offend the Muslims.

The Sunday Times points out:

But Rushdie was challenging a system of thought that he thought iniquitous – isn’t that what writers are sometimes supposed to do, and to do fearlessly, with our support? Le Carré thinks about this for a while.

“Yes, in retrospect I think that probably is right. It just seemed to me unreasonable to expect Islam to suddenly reach the same stage of development as our own religions. But perhaps I was wrong.” Pause. “If so, I was wrong for the right reasons,” he adds.

The Sunday Times also has an extract from Le Carre’s new book, A Most Wanted Man, coming out on September 23.

Ron Liddle, who interviewed the 76-year-old writer at his home in Lands End, writes:

Le Carré’s latest book, A Most Wanted Man, is the story of a half-Chechen, half-Russian bastard Muslim refugee called Issa (a name that means, in case we miss the point, Jesus), adrift in Hamburg, pursued by a clutch of competing security services, which fear, on the slenderest of grounds, that he may unleash fundamentalist mayhem upon the country. It is a beautiful book – his best, I would reckon, for 10 years or more – and you could scarcely wish for a novel moreau courant.

Further, le Carré has succeeded where others, such as John Updike, have failed: in nailing our post9/11 paranoias and getting inside the skins of those who are averse to our culture and hegemony. Issa (an irritating character, to be frank – I’d have handed him over to the Russians or the Yanks by page 25 for a spot of intensive waterboarding) is protected by an uneasy alliance of well-meaning babe lawyer, floundering and fusty British banker and rough but honest German spy.

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