John le Carré, Best-Selling Author of Cold War Thrillers, Dies at 89 – Breaking from the James Bond mold, he turned the spy novel into high art as he explored the moral compromises of agents on both sides of the Iron curtain screamed New York Times.
It was a sense of personal loss at his passing away. I have read everything he had written from his very first novel, ‘Call for the Dead’ to his latest “Agent Running in the Field”, published last year. My love affair with his writing started during my school years and has continued till date with undiminished ardor.
To call him a master spy story writer is a huge understatement. Yes, he did employ the genre to great effect, but he was much more than that. He was a sharp observer of our morally flawed times; when right and wrong are blurred and there are no definite angels or clear devils. For him, there are no heroes or villains – most of the characters inhabit an ambiguous grey no man’s land, deep in the shadows.
Was it not ironic that George Smiley, his super spy, finally got the better of his arch enemy Karla, using blackmail and exploiting the otherwise stone-hearted Karla’s irrational love for his wayward daughter?
Most of us enjoy reading about and watching superheroic spies- like Fleming’s Casanova on steroids- James Bond or Robert Ludlum’ tragic Jason Bourne. James Bond is a shallow caricature compared to George Smiley of Le Carre’. The Bond or Bourne books and movies are just ‘dishum dishum” or to use the expressive Indianism, time pass. But that is all there is to them.
In contrast, Smiley was a plain, shortsighted and tubby man whose wife the improbable Ann Sawley played the field and cheated on him shabbily. He was constantly overlooked for promotion by showy, unsubstantial straw men but plodded on with his life’s work. Yet, he ended up as legend of the service. Alec Guinness played Smiley in the BBC series on ‘Smiley’s People’ and brought him to life, as only he could.
The Cold war did not dampen Le Carre’s creativity. He went on to write about gun runners, Palestine Israeli conflict or the venality of big Pharma. His moral outrage at the exploiters of the masses shines through his books. The only contemporary writer who was his equal in the masterly use of the English language was Salman Rushdie, with whom he carried on a running battle in the Guardian, before smoking the peace pipe.
His description of people, places and feel for the moods of occasions was awesome. I have lived for five years in England, wandered in the streets of Hamburg or the dark alleys of Moscow, met the boat people in Hong Kong and other exotic locales. Everywhere I went, I could see how sharp an observer of people and places he was.
The meeting of British Civil Service mandarins in “The Honorable Schoolboy’ for getting clearance for sending an agent in the field to the Far East and Hong Kong was sharply observant. I have attended meetings in our own government; with smarmy self-important civil servants, fawning courtiers, departments fighting for their own agendas and lonely heroic figures battling with facts.
His passing away has left a void in my other life- my life among my books. Le Carre’ may be no more. But his books adorn my heart and mind and are still my companions.