Book Article

The Spy Who Came In From the Cold War

Novelist and ex-spy John le Carre on his exploits -- On the heels of a timely new book, the author discusses his art and why the world is less safe since the Iraq war

John leCarre | I SPY Le Carre's former colleagues saw him ''as a literary defector'' when he changed careers
Image credit: John le Carré Photograph by Antonin Kratochvil
I SPY Le Carre's former colleagues saw him ''as a literary defector'' when he changed careers

For a man who cherishes privacy, writes under a pseudonym, and chooses to live in one of the most remote locations on earth, John le Carré is a damn good host. David Cornwell, the 72-year-old Brit and frisky firebrand behind the bestselling pen name, lives atop a rocky cliff on England's Cornish coast with his wife of 35 years, Jane. Visitors don't get out there much. So when they do, the Cornwells lay the hospitality on thick: a sumptuous lunch of beef tenderloin, smoked salmon, and a couple bottles of very good wine; an after-lunch stroll around the grounds; and a lengthy discussion of his cloak-and-dagger career, including his latest book, ''Absolute Friends'' -- a typically twisty spy thriller so up-to-date in its Iraqi war politics that the ink might smudge off on your fingers while you read it.

How long have you lived out here at the end of the world?
JOHN LE CARRÉ Thirty-five years. My move here coincided with the break-up of my first marriage. I couldn't leave England. That's where the language is. That's where the whole material of my life is. At the same time, I did not want to be embraced by English literary society or by English upper-class society -- I've had a taste of both and that's not where I belong.

In your new novel, there's a scene in which the main character watches the Berlin Wall fall on TV, absolutely stupefied. You were in British intelligence, stationed in Berlin, when the wall was erected; what was your reaction...?
When it happened I was on the island of Eleuthera, researching ''The Night Manager,'' and I turned on the television and it just happened. It was very strange. The Cold War really was over. Symbolically over. And then I came back to England and read my obituary everywhere. That this man has nothing left to write about. That the minstrel of the Cold War is out of work.

Did any part of you think they might be right?
I thought, ''You are out of your mind -- the trouble is now beginning!''

Last January, you wrote an antiwar editorial in The Times of London, titled ''The United States of America Has Gone Mad.''...
Well, I didn't write the headline. [Laughs]

But your new book is quite critical of George W. Bush....
I don't think there's anything worse that a leader can do than take us to war on the strength of lies. There were not reasons to go to war, there were excuses. So while the United States was wrapping itself in the flag and [Tony] Blair was walking on the Atlantic, many of us felt here that he was wrong. I reject absolutely the idiotic charge that I'm anti-American. Quite the reverse. I believe in American ideals from Jefferson to Kennedy. But I also have nine American grandchildren I care about.

You've said that you weren't a particularly good spy. Why not?
I wasn't good because I was never directed against any particularly interesting target. I inherited one or two quite big operations, but I don't think I had enough sentiment for the job. By the time I was wanting to leave, the reasons that got me in had worn out.

What were those reasons?
Soviet communism. East Germany was a nasty, foul little country. And it could only be right to spy the hell out of it. [Laughs]

After you became a successful writer, were any of your colleagues in British intelligence resentful?
They were very angry because they saw me as a sort of literary defector. Also, there was great envy.

How many books into it did you feel like you knew what you were doing as a writer?
The first book. [1961's ''Call for the Dead'']

Really? Right out of the gate?
I thought the first book was a work of genius, and now it makes my toes curl.

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