In Absolute Friends, one of John le Carré’s lesser works, the central character explains his rebirth as a left-wing firebrand, radicalised by Britain’s support for America’s invasion of Iraq. ‘It’s the old man’s impatience coming on early,’ he says. ‘It’s anger at seeing the show come round again one too many times.’ This is followed by a rant about ‘the death of empire’, our ‘dismally ill-managed country’ and ‘the renegade hyperpower that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment’ (not Russia, obviously, but the United States).
I felt a similar spurt of rage on learning that Le Carré’s most famous show — the seedy world of British intelligence, or ‘the Circus’, as he calls it — is about to come round again. Later this month, the 85-year-old author will publish A Legacy of Spies, which revisits the events of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and resurrects several of his long defunct characters, including George Smiley. Once again, the reader will be plunged into the slightly smelly, morally ambiguous universe of the Cold War and its psychologically damaged protagonists. Once again, Le Carré’s fans will be able to tell themselves how sophisticated they are for rising above the good-vs-evil simplicities of inferior espionage novelists. Once again, they’ll give themselves permission to enjoy what is, essentially, an airport thriller by reassuring themselves that Le Carré is really a literary writer who ‘transcends’ the limits of genre fiction.
It’s hard to know where to start with the old booby, but Absolute Friends, published in 2003, is as good a place as any. It was described by one critic as Le Carré’s ‘first truly bad novel’, but that’s a little unfair. After all, he’d written at least half-a-dozen stinkers before that. But it was probably his most left-wing, which is saying something. The central character, Ted Mundy, joins forces with a former Stasi agent to save the third world from America’s military-industrial complex, and ends up being brutally gunned down by the German security services. At one point, a sympathetic character rattles off a list of fearless truth-tellers whose books and journalism every responsible citizen should read: Naomi Klein, John Pilger, Arundhati Roy, Joseph Stiglitz and George Monbiot. After wading through Absolute Friends, you get the impression that Le Carré reads little else.
Some reviewers were disappointed, contrasting the book’s political fanaticism with the more nuanced tone of his earlier work. ‘Le Carré’s anger comes across as a bit too raw to work as fiction,’ wrote Stephen Amidon in the Sunday Times, ‘its rhetoric more in line with a Harold Pinter column than a Graham Greene novel.’
But I don’t share the conventional view of Le Carré becoming mentally unhinged after the fall of the Berlin Wall. No, I suspect that he was a left-wing zealot from the very beginning. That he didn’t become anti-American in 1989, desperate for some new subject matter. Rather, the end of the Cold War just made him even angrier because he worried that the wrong side might have won.
No genuinely liberal person, no one remotely fair-minded, could observe the conflict between Western democracy and Communist totalitarianism and conclude that they were morally equivalent. America and its Nato allies may not have been perfect, but the Soviet Union imprisoned, tortured and brutally murdered tens of millions of its own citizens. And it’s not as if Le Carré didn’t know about these crimes when he first started writing of the Circus. He was an intelligence officer himself, don’t forget.
So spare us the encomiums for Le Carré. The distinguished, grey-haired gent who will be plastered across the pages of news-papers and magazines in a couple of weeks’ time isn’t just an old has-been resurrecting his greatest hits in the hope of returning to the bestseller lists. He is an author whose novels gave succour to the enemy when we were locked in a life-or-death struggle with one of the worst regimes in human history.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.