Much has been written about how Carre elevated the genre of spy fiction to high art, yet, he wrote beautiful love stories, too.

Author John le Carre in a grey suit standing before podiumWikimediaCommons/GermanEmbassyLondon
Features Books Thursday, December 24, 2020 - 17:23

“Love is whatever you can still betray,” wrote John le Carre, the great espionage writer who died aged 89 on 13 December this year. Much has been written about how Carre elevated the genre of spy fiction to high art, yet, would it be sacrilege to say that he wrote beautiful love stories, too?

Le Carre examined human frailties and the effect that geopolitics had on them. If it was the thrilling but dry world of espionage that drove his stories, it was the love stories tucked away in quite a few of them that gave it heart.

Love and betrayal played vital roles in quite a few of his tales, and all too often,  they were fatally intertwined. Yes, the world of espionage took centre-stage but love was always present, a clear and present danger. This was love with complex consequences, love which impacted proceedings in vital ways.

In the book that made his reputation, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold (1963), the brooding, melancholy, washed-up spy Alec Leamas starts a casual romance with Liz Gold, a woman from his temporary workplace. Leamas is on the cusp of leaving for another ‘job’ and knows there is no future for them. Which is why when Liz asks him if he loves her, he cynically replies that he does not believe in fairy tales.

Except, he does. Leamas gets involved in a critical operation mounted by British Intelligence in East Germany, and as matters come to a head, Liz Gold is also pulled into it. Leamas realises that both he and the innocent trusting Liz have been played as pawns by the secret service. His relationship with Liz has been used by le Carre’s uber-spy, George Smiley, to outsmart enemies in East Germany. In the bleak climax, (spoiler alert) Liz is shot dead as she and Leamas try to cross from the East to West Germany. Liz knows too much and is expendable but Leamas is expected to cross over to safety.

Except, he doesn’t. He chooses to head back to the East and meet his death while standing guard over Liz’s dead body. Alec Leamas, then, is the spy who never gets to come in from the cold.

A similar story plays out in the second of the Karla trilogy, The Honourable Schoolboy (1977). Here, a conventional almost cinematic love triangle plays out. The spy Jerry Westerby gets embroiled in an operation involving money- laundering by the Russians, in Hong Kong. He falls in love with Lizzie Worth, the British mistress of the Chinese tycoon Drake Ko and sees himself as some sort of saviour to Lizzie. Westerby eventually chooses to turn rogue in order to save Lizzie and keep her safe whilst doing `the right thing’. He pays for this loyalty to a personal cause over country with his life.

The ubiquitous Smiley, one- time mentor to Westerby, tells him, “We’re not necessarily in competition with affection. We simply like to know where it lies.” Which, of course, is a lie. In the world of spycraft, love has to be sacrificed at the altar of country.

There is a similar triangle at the heart of le Carre’s  The Night Manager (1993),  but with a twist. Here, former British soldier Jonathan Pine is inducted into Operation Limpet to take down a notorious arms dealer called Richard Roper. Pine and Roper’s mistress, Jed Marshall, fall in love. But Roper is no Drake Ko,  who at least had noble reasons for doing what he does. Roper is simply an amoral, ruthless, tough hustler. He also has corrupt officers in both the British and American secret service, besides others, in his pay. Operation Limpet is in danger not only because of the feelings that Pine and Jed have for one another, but also because of another operation secretly launched to scuttle it by Roper’s loyalists. However, the former intelligence officer Leonard Burr, who launched Operation Limpet, intervenes to save the lives of Pine and Jed. In the process, (spoiler alert) he closes down the operation and Roper walks free but Pine and Jed are able to escape to make a life together. In this book, the political is sacrificed for the personal.

Love is always disruptive to the established order in le Carre’s books. In one of his finest books The Constant Gardener (2001), le Carre combines an intensely personal love story with a larger issue. The issue he chooses to shine a spotlight on is the shenanigans of the powerful pharma industry. The love story concerns Justin Quayle, a career diplomat posted in Nairobi, and  his murdered wife Tessa Quayle. In the wake of her murder, ugly rumours begin to swirl about Tessa and her colleague with whom she was on a trip when she died. But Justin, perversely, does not go quietly into the night as the British Foreign Office hopes he would after Tessa’s death. In choosing to slowly and persistently investigate the reasons for his wife’s murder, he becomes a different man. In uncovering the truth behind the murder and unmasking those that betrayed Tessa, he avenges the death of his wife. In this gem of a book, le Carre manages to give equal importance to a very critical issue as well as the love story at the heart of it.

If there is one book which is an antithesis to all of the above, it is the charming The Russia House (1989). In this, Barley Blair, an irreverent, hard- drinking, down-at-heel publisher, is unwittingly drawn into a secret service operation. A Russian physicist chooses to pass on state secrets to him and the go -between is his former girlfriend Katya Orlova. Blair and Katya fall in love and start a relationship. Blair realises that the operation he is part of, is going to fatally endanger Katya and her family. Le Carre seemingly gives us early hints as to what Blair will do,   when he writes, “If there is to be hope, we must all betray our countries”. So Barley plays the game like an old spook --- that he is not -- and manages to outsmart both British and American Intelligence. In the bargain, he saves Katya and her family. Love and betrayal again go hand- in- hand but love triumphs.

“Today one must think like a hero to be a merely decent human being,” wrote le Carre.  This statement holds true for all of them: Leamas, Westerby, Pine, Quayle and Blair, all decent human beings defined as heroes by what they do for love.

Le Carre was never just a writer of the archetypal spy story. He was a master chronicler of the zeitgeist and the part that love and betrayal played in it.

Sujatha Karun has worked in television and the media in the past.


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