And the headmaster discovered that I was giving work to his secretary and flogged me for it. He had a riding crop, and it made a hell of a cut into the flesh of the bum." A pause for amused reflection. "I don't know whether he flogged me because I was a rival employer or whether he didn't like the story."
Since then Le Carré has fared somewhat better with critics, but there will be readers of his new book who will agree with his old headmaster. Le Carré is best known for classic cold war espionage thrillers like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. But the cold war is long over, and at 72, he has written a searing, startling novel that sweeps through much of the 20th century and up to the present conflict with Iraq, and it may shock his devoted fans. Absolute Friends (Little, Brown; 455 pages) is a work of fist-shaking, Orwellian outrage. "At the end of the cold war, people said I was finished," Le Carré says with quiet determination. "I felt I was really just beginning."
John le Carré is a pseudonym. He was born David Cornwell in 1931, the son of a high-flying, charismatic con man who racked up millions in bad debts; his mother left when David was 5. His father's many frauds left Le Carré with a natural gift for duplicity that he turned to professional advantage. For an undisclosed period of time from the late 1940s into the 1960s, he worked for Her Majesty's Secret Service, though he is quick to downplay his exploits. "I was never James Bond or anything like it," he insists. "I sat behind a desk." It was as a maker of literary fictions rather than diplomatic ones that he found his calling. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, published in 1963, was a sensation. Set among low-level intelligence operators in the chilly mists of divided Berlin, it lifted the curtain on a secret war fought in silence not by chiseled movie heroes in tuxedos but by paunchy, bitter men in ill-fitting trench coats, real human beings who loved and suffered and doubted and died in an atmosphere of profound moral ambiguity. They were James Bond come unbound.
And The Spy Who Came In from the Cold was more than a page-turner. In an act of literary spycraft, Le Carré had smuggled a great human drama inside a pulp paperback. He helped invent a new kind of novel, the literary thriller, and devised one to speak to the anxious pace, global scale and deadly stakes of 20th century geopolitics. Spy and the books that followed it, notably those starring the fictional spymaster George Smiley, laid bare the ticking watchwork of power and subterfuge that underlies our daily lives and established Le Carré as one of the principal fictional chroniclers of modern politics.
Today Le Carré is hale, white-haired and vigorous. He has a hearing aid discreetly tucked in each ear, but he is otherwise undiminished. His speaking voice is patrician in tone (he was once, briefly, a tutor at Eton), and he quotes fluently from the annals of military history the British in Suez, the cia in Iran, the Abkhazian War, obscure, half-forgotten intelligence scandals but he is also an almost unnervingly gifted mimic. Over the course of an afternoon, he does, among others, the author James Jones, a snooty French photographer, Truman Capote and Mel Brooks' 2,000-year-old man.
These days Le Carré lives a life apart. He steers clear of the London literary scene. He refuses to allow his books to be submitted for prizes, and he declines all honors offered him. "I am not a Commander of the British Empire," he says. "I will never be Sir David, Lord David or King David." He and his wife Jane spend most of the year in self-imposed exile in a compound on the rocky, wave-scoured coast of Cornwall, at the very southwestern tip of England, a surreal, almost uninhabited landscape of ancient stone circles, 12th century churches and sheep-dotted, wind-blasted meadows. He rises early to write often before 6 and when he isn't writing, he takes long walks along the gray, fog-baffled cliffs.
He is far too polite too English, really to raise his voice or shake his fist, but Le Carré is an angry man. After the demise of the Soviet empire, he was optimistic about the future of the West, but his confidence, he feels, has been betrayed. To be quite clear: he feels that the Taliban got exactly what they deserved, and the terrorists responsible for Sept. 11 deserve the same.
But when the U.S.'s military focus shifted to Iraq, he became increasingly alarmed. "It suddenly seemed to me that we were really watching the preparation of a much larger campaign based on very dubious grounds," he says.
"I kept thinking, Don't lie to me. Don't lie to me. Don't pretend that this is not religiously based. Don't pretend this is not a crusade. Don't pretend this isn't about oil. Don't pretend this isn't about making a fortune and keeping the American people on their heels in fear."
Absolute Friends bristles with that outrage. It is the story of Ted, a tall, genial, impressionable Englishman, and Sasha, a tiny, misshapen, brilliant, fiercely idealistic German. The two men meet for the first time as fire-breathing anarchists in a counterculture commune in Berlin in the 1960s and, improbably, become fast friends. The book's rhythm is that of their chance meetings. Over the years, Ted drifts into life as a minor diplomat, and a decade later, he re-encounters Sasha at an official reception. Now an East German functionary, Sasha proposes an intelligence operation smuggling state secrets to the West under cover of Ted's menial diplomatic duties. It's a classic Le Carré caper fans will recognize it as a variation on one he used in A Perfect Spy.
But this time around, Le Carré has something different in mind. The action moves restlessly forward in time, past the fall of the Wall, through the Gulf War and up to the present day. Ted and Sasha watch the triumph of the cold war a triumph for which they mortgaged much of their lives being squandered by corporate cowboys and callow compromisers. "You think the war's over because a bunch of old Nazis in East Germany have traded Lenin for Coca-Cola?"
Sasha demands of Ted in one of his bravura harangues. "Do you really believe that American capitalism will make the world a sweet safe place? It will pick it dry." The novel comes to a head in the present day with the two friends attempting a final, desperate gambit in pursuit of the ideals they shared in their youth, ideals that seem childish and dated even to them but that, like their friendship, they somehow can't abandon.
This is Le Carré in career form: his anger burns cold and clear. Rage has given back his pacing its sharp, irresistible snap, his wry social observation its bite and his signature backstage knife-play its deadly edge. But even more, he shows us without sentimentality or self-righteousness that a deeply moving, deeply personal story can be alloyed with a powerful political argument and that a single novel can express both an urgent, immediate sense of grievance and the melancholy perspective of an old man looking back on a long life lived in a tragic, tumultuous century.
With a political statement this pungent, Le Carré knows he runs the risk of alienating his sizable American following, even of coming off as a crank an aging, forgotten ex-spook railing at the world from his Cornish crag. He also knows that he is leaving behind the sense of moral ambiguity that permeated his most acclaimed novels, trading those many delicate, literary shades of gray for a palette of clear-cut black and white. He has taken a stand.
"I have a kind of middle-class constituency of fans who don't want me shaking the bars," he says, smiling sadly. "This is uncomfortable; this isn't ambivalent. This isn't Smiley saying 'Well, this is really tough, what we're doing, but I'll carry my horse uphill.' This is Smiley saying 'F___ this! This has got to stop!'" He laughs delightedly, but he is in no way joking. "There was something that I could not look away from. I felt I could not look myself in the eye and not write this. I think there may be no going back." Another pause for reflection. "Maybe I just felt that it was time to be a little less polite about it."