John Le Carré’s faithful followers in this country have found the master at the top of his form in his most recent novel, The Night Manager.1 This, however, is a curious thing, for as more than one observer has had occasion to note over the last few years, the whole genre of the spy novel is in trouble, le Carré included. Without the cold war, the Soviet Union, and East Germany, and with the CIA out of the picture, what is there to write about? Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? For a little while, South Africa may have seemed to offer fruitful ground for writers of a “progressive” bent, and then there was always Israel. But the South Africans have mended their ways, and as for Israel-as-bad-guy, no one has much wanted to be associated, even by implication, with that nation’s all-too-real and all-too-unpleasant enemies, from Iraq’s Saddam Hussein to the heirs of Khomeini in Iran to Islamic fundamentalists all over the Middle East.
Some ten years ago, after the publication of The Little Drummer Girl, I took note in COMMENTARY of the excessive praise being heaped on le Carré (in America, not in England).2 Some critics were comparing him favorably with Balzac and Stendhal, while others hailed him as one of the great moral and political philosophers of our time, and a psychologist of rare depth. To me, although I considered le Carré among the more skillful practitioners of his genre, such claims seemed ludicrous. And above all, perhaps, his political judgments struck me as, to put it mildly, ill-informed. True, most spy writers have preposterous politics, but by and large they do not expect to be taken seriously; le Carré, by contrast, was a man of large intellectual pretensions.
He still is, and his admirers still admire him for it. Thus, the reviewer of The Night Manager in the New York Times praised le Carré for having taken a nuanced approach to the East-West conflict: “unlike so many of the ‘evil-empire’ experts on the cold war, he avoided simplistic answers about both sides.” Well, not quite. In fact, le Carré was an uncompromising enemy of Western “cold warriors,” and expressed a marked dislike for Americans in general. In his novels of the cold-war years, American intelligence services—in contrast to the KGB—were staffed by idiots and/or fascistic puritans, both equally the objects of authorial loathing.
Ten years later, le Carré seems to have softened a bit. According to an interview in Time (July 5), he now thinks that Americans have “the energy and the record and the right” to conduct a global “altruistic crusade.” But about his own past record le Carré has had no second thoughts, as the title of the interview, “We Distorted Our Own Minds,” aptly suggests. “We did entrench anti-Communism,” he declares, “in ways that were catastrophic. Any good journalist living in Moscow in the later years of Brezhnev would know that nothing worked anymore.” In retrospect, le Carré adds modestly, he could even kick himself for having “contributed to the myth of the intelligence services as being very good.”
Really? As it happens, there was never any such “myth” in the first place. And even if there were, le Carré could hardly be accused of having contributed to it; on the contrary, he did everything in his power to subvert it. That he regarded anti-Communism as “catastrophic” was plain enough from his books. As for the idea that “nothing worked” in the Soviet Union in the Brezhnev era, this may have been plain to “any good journalist,” but it was far from plain at the time to John le Carré, whose respectful portraits of the workings of the Brezhnev-era KGB have latterly become a source of bemused speculation in the ex-Soviet Union itself.
Over the years, I used to wonder what Russian readers would make of le Carré’s books if they ever had the chance to read them. Would it be, for them, like Alice in Wonderland? Would they be amused; angry; both at once? Following the Russian earthquake of the last few years, we now have an answer.
During the early days of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost, le Carré became fashionable for a little while in the Soviet Union, as Russia House (1989) and other novels were translated into Russian. Then, as things went further and Soviet readers had an opportunity to take a closer look at his fiction, the negative reaction became quite violent. In general, Russian critics have drawn parallels between Western espionage thrillers and the worst kind of homegrown Soviet literature of the Stalinist period. This may seem exaggerated, but one has to bear in mind that writers like le Carré had been banned in the USSR, a fact which imparted an aura of authenticity to their reputations, if not to their work, that may in turn help to explain the intensity of today’s counter-reaction.
In the leading Russian journal Literaturnaya Obozrenie (Number 3, 1992), an essay entitled “Thou Shalt Not Make Graven Images” by Vladimir Lvov discusses the political views of several well-known Western spy novelists, including le Carré but also Martin Cruz Smith, Len Deighton, and Frederick Forsyth. Lvov’s comments are devastating. He finds the whole genre fraudulent and stupid, damning Forsyth for his crude juxtapositions of a “good Brezhnev” and a “wise Andropov” with the “evil Suslov,” and Martin Cruz Smith for bestowing legitimacy on the Brezhnev regime.
As for le Carré: how, asks Lvov, could he possibly have believed that the Soviet military-industrial complex was “indestructible and eternal”? What led him to accept at face value the official slogan of the KGB as “the brains, the honor, and the conscience” of the Soviet system? How could he have said after Andropov’s death that the Soviet dictator and former head of the KGB had “turned a bunch of illiterate detectives into a highly qualified and highly cultivated intelligence service, able to accomplish any task anywhere in the world”? (Here I am translating from Lvov’s Russian.) Why, in Russia House, the ridiculous valuation of the “mysterious Russian soul,” an entity powerful enough to enable a Russian woman to “turn” the professional Western spy with whom she is in love?
In short, today’s Russian appraisal of le Carré’s cold-war writings is rather at variance with the memory of le Carré himself. And the variance is instructive. Lvov, asking why le Carré and the others went to such lengths to present the “human face” of Communism, ransacking the Soviet system for nonexistent signs of an “inner kinship with Western democracy and openness,” comes to the conclusion that people in the West actually knew very little about what was going on behind the Iron Curtain, and perhaps did not want to know.
The latter, at any rate, is true enough. Nor were Western spy novelists the only ones suffering from such self-imposed delusions; to their ranks one must add pundits and statesmen, church officials and spokesmen for international organizations. For their part, Soviet observers always tended somewhat wishfully to overestimate the degree of Western awareness and sophistication, and to underrate not only Western ignorance but, more importantly, Western self-deceit.
Lvov begins his essay by describing how, as a child in Novosibirsk during World War II, he was taken to the local cinema to see Michael Curtiz’s Mission to Moscow and other such American movies. What would he say now if he knew that Mission to Moscow, arguably the most scandalous apology for the Moscow trials and the Stalin terror ever produced by Hollywood, is still shown on American television? One standard guide gives it 3.5 stars out of a possible four (“fascinating propaganda, well done”), while another calls it “interesting either as an expressive object or as pure movie, quite beautifully put together by Curtiz.”
A Russian, being a Russian, might see a deep conspiracy at work here, rather than (mainly) stupidity. But contemplating the persistence of Western gullibility about the Communist system, a condition to which John le Carré in his time made a contribution for which he is still reaping praise, one is almost moved to apologize retroactively to Leni Riefenstahl. At least Hitler’s favorite movie director and the creator of Triumph of the Will never made a film glorifying Auschwitz.
1 Knopf, 429 pp., $24.00.
2 “Le Carré's Fantasies,” June 1983.