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Wednesday, August 4, 2010
THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD by John le Carré
I picked up this classic espionage thriller genre after having a dream that I wrote a book in that genre. This was inspired entirely by the thrilling recent news story of that young Russian spy Anna Chapman
I was gripped by all that, thinking she was just like a character from one of my books, who happened to become a spy. My subconscious clearly jumped aboard this notion and I dreamed a whole plot along those lines.
The next morning I wondered whether I shouldn’t perhaps write it, so thought I would take a look at the most famous work of the acknowledged master of the spy thriller. I was further encouraged by seeing that the book is one of Time magazine’s 100 Best Novels.
The cover also boasted a – characteristically economical – quote from one of my favourite authors, Graham Greene: ‘The best spy story I have ever read.’
His book The Quiet American would still be my vote for that title, but I did read this one with interest.
Le Carré’s tense, cool style is compelling and enjoyably male. I was also relieved that I found the machinations of the plot very easy to follow – which is all down to the intelligence of the author, not the reader.
But do I think it deserves to be on Time’s list? Not so sure. I found it as much of a period piece as the Edith Wharton I read just before it, and the Cold War paranoia in every sentence seems slightly hysterical with the hindsight perspective of nearly 50 years of subsequent events (the book was published in 1963).
Le Carré’s portrayal of all Communist party functionaries as brain-washed psychopaths, who are using that dogma as a way of amassing personal power, rather than because they might have believed in it as a way of creating a fairer society, made it seem rather one-dimensional.
The main baddy – the really sadistic psycho Commie – is actually a Jew-hating former Nazi, which I found quite hilarious. The underlying message being that Communists are actually just more of the same old evil fascists in different uniforms.
That hints to me that Le Carré was just as brainwashed in the other direction as his Commie characters and reminded me uncomfortably of McCarthy era paranoia.
What’s really scary to me is how deep that fear still runs in America’s psyche. It’s what made ordinary working Americans protest against having a fairer new state-subsidised health care system. That’s how frightened they still are of anything that even hints at – whisper it – socialism,
Of course, Communism didn’t work – although of course it depends how you measure it. Communist Cuba has the highest literacy rate in the world. The people don’t have much to eat, but they can all read War and Peace while they don’t eat it.
That aside, Communism didn’t work because human nature won out. I believe it comes down to the most basic survival instinct: the individual triumphs over the notion of the mass.
And although I’m a fervent fan of government-funded health care and education systems, I’m very glad I never had to live under Communism to enjoy them. At least in a Capitalist state you don’t have to pretend you’re not following your genetic prerogative.
But I do ask myself, while they might have jeans, biros and even McDonalds on tap now, are the ordinary people of Russia really better off now a new superrich elite has replaced the Communist party?
An elite very similar to the one the Communists threw out in 1916, except they’ve amassed the cash by all means necessary, rather than inheriting it.
Anyway, I'm going on a bit, but I do wonder what Mr le Carré thinks about all that. I'll have to read read one of his more recent books to find out. And perhaps he'll be inspired to write one about Anna Chapman.
Reading satisfaction: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 3
Recommend to mother: 7
Recommend to niece: 5
Recommend to gay best friend: 0
Recommend to man pal: 10
Recommend to Helen Razer: 0
Read on public transport: 5
It's been a diverse career. Not many people have written for Allure and (the late-lamented...) Gourmet mag.
I've been a magazine editor, an op ed columnist on a broadsheet newspaper, and for years covered the fashion shows in Paris, Milan etc.
But while I shifted between the worlds of food, fashion and current affairs, there was one overriding passion: books.
Now I write them - five novels published, with another due out this year, and several books of journalism.
Here I write about them.