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A Perfect Spy by John le Carré

25 December 2007

Another John le Carré for today’s book review — I’ve one or two more to post, and I’ll have them both up before the end of the week.

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré

Le Carré’s books are as a rule very psychological in tone, exploring the nature of espionage from a deeply personal perspective. The questions he poses his stories are the sort that spies and spy-masters have asked themselves ever since espionage first proved its worth in warfare: what might make someone want to spy? What kinds of espionage would a potential spy be most proficient at? To what extent can a spy conceal his clandestine activities from unfriendly or even friendly eyes? And above all, under what circumstances might a spy be persuaded to spy for the other side? A Perfect Spy takes all of these questions and stuffs them into a storyline that blends history and autobiography in a delicate and complex mix.

The story revolves around Magnus Pym, a high-ranking member of the British diplomatic corps who also happens to be one of the intelligence service’s best field officers. By all appearances, he’s charismatic, well-liked, intelligent and dedicated, a model husband and father and diplomat and field agent. But Magnus has an incredibly convoluted past, full of closed doors and secret file cabinets into which he has compartmentalised his life. And this past has not only made him into a superlative agent for British intelligence, but it also has made him into an incredibly effective double agent for the Czech intelligence service. A Perfect Spy delves deep into that past and how it has played out into the present day…where Pym is on the run from both of his political masters, and preparing for the moment when one or the other of them catches up to him at last.

It’s another massive, brain-bending book from Le Carré, clocking in at nearly 700 pages in my paperback edition and yet uniformly gripping all the way through. So much of the book is told from a quasi-narrative viewpoint, where Pym ‘tells’ his son (or his wife, or his old boss) the details of his childhood and youth in order to explain why he is the man he has become — and while that narrative can be a little hard to follow at times it does help you feel as if you’re fallen right into Pym’s head and are accompanying him on his final journey. Again, as with most of Le Carré’s works, there’s something careful and precise about his writing that gives me the feeling of reading a book written in translation. I must say, though, that this book isn’t a high Cold War book like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, or even a book about the trials and tribuations of British intelligence as the Smiley trilogy was. It’s a story about a deeply confused man — or rather, a boy whose entire life has been one great big mixed-up complicated game of Let’s Pretend. So if the psychological side of espionage interests you, A Perfect Spy is exactly the sort of book that will let you pick apart an exemplary subject, one Magnus Pym, and come to know him as well as he knows himself. Which is to say, hardly at all.

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