Know

By George!

R Srinivasan | Updated on December 15, 2020

Life lessons: In a 1996 interview to The Paris Review, le Carré (centre) said that he based the character of George Smiley on an actual spy — a colleague called John Bingham   -  REUTERS/ SUZANNE PLUNKETT

Author John le Carré thrived on espionage, in every sense of the word. A fan pays tribute to the man who crafted a credible antidote to the swashbuckling James Bond

* For someone whose idea of what a spy was and did had been entirely shaped by the Bond books and movies, the introduction to le Carré’s greatest character George Smiley was, to put it mildly, a shock

* The reason that le Carré’s world rings true to so many readers is that he really was a professional spy for some years, and actually wrote his first book when he was stationed in the British embassy in Bonn

* Walking around East Berlin, I wondered why the place felt so familiar — till I realised that the seedy area around Checkpoint Charlie had been accurately captured in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

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The trouble with growing up in pre-reforms India of the 1970s was the genteel shortage of everything. You had a gas connection, but got a refill cylinder only a couple of times a year, which meant weekly hikes to the coal depot to haul buckets of smoky anthracite. One had a telephone but it wasn’t really used to talk to anyone much. Trunk calls were rare occasions, usually triggered by rites of passage — births, deaths or marriages — and the entire family had to get a turn during those precious three minutes to “say hello to your great-uncle”. And, of course, there were never enough books around.

Books were rare pleasures then. One actually owned very few — the odd 100 Great Adventure Stories for Boys gifted by a profligate aunt, some tattered, hand-me-down copies of William, ancient hard-bound editions of Wodehouse novels reeking of mould, and (in our early teens) James Bond novels or James Hadley Chase doorstoppers surreptitiously handed from one sweaty schoolboy to another during lunch break, with the sex scene pages helpfully pre-dog-eared. And, of course, the cheap books put out by the People’s Publishing House, Moscow, which were either too dull or too frighteningly large (I mean, have you seen how big War and Peace is?) to actually read, but gave one’s bookshelf a satisfyingly well-filled look.

So, the only recourse for a voracious reader with empty pockets were the libraries run by the two great English-speaking powers. The British Council Library was much more fun, with a fairly well-stocked fiction section, whereas the centre run by the United States Information Service to save us from falling under Soviet domination tended to run much more towards academic books and incomprehensible stuff with titles such as Racial conflict in early American literature.

So the BCL it was. The trouble was, virtually every reader in Delhi had glommed on to the fact that there were good books to be had there — for just a few rupees a year! — so it was always a hit-and-miss affair when it came to what one could actually lay one’s hands on. The ‘better’ books seldom made it back to the stock shelves, being grabbed right off the returns trolley by the next eager bibliophile.

Which is how I ended up reading my first book by John le Carré, who died on December 12 at the age of 89. It was, if I remember correctly, The Honourable Schoolboy. I was probably 17 or 18 years old at the time, much too callow, ill informed and poorly educated (the CBSE had ‘modernised’ the syllabus, which meant one read poorly-written and worse-printed textbooks) to understand the nuances of the Cold War dynamics that le Carré wrote about. India was barely out of Indira Gandhi’s socialist embrace, the Soviets were still good guys working for the welfare of the proletariat and worse, it was the second book in a trilogy (the first was Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I read much later).

Still, it was an eye-opener. For someone whose idea of what a spy was and did had been entirely shaped by the Bond books and movies, the introduction to le Carré’s greatest character George Smiley was, to put it mildly, a shock. Middle-aged, portly, with thinning hair and a bad suit, Smiley was the antithesis of the image seared into one’s brain by Sean Connery. No martinis here shaken or stirred, certainly no fast cars and fancy gadgetry, serial cuckold rather than serial seducer, and instead of Bond’s urbane Britishness, a world-weary cynicism.

The reason that le Carré’s world rings true to so many readers is that he really was a professional spy for some years, and actually wrote his first book when he was stationed in the British embassy in Bonn. In a 1996 interview to The Paris Review, he explains how he based Smiley on an actual spy — a colleague called John Bingham, who was “a thriller writer, and also an extremely good intelligence officer, a moleish, tubby fellow. He gave me not only the urge to write, but also a kind of outline of George Smiley, which I later filled in from other sources”.

Years later, on my very first overseas junket — to the then West Germany, courtesy Lufthansa — I discovered that my Indian passport, and the implied socialist brotherhood, enabled me to cross over into the GDR. Walking around East Berlin, I wondered why the place felt so familiar — till I realised that the seedy area around Checkpoint Charlie had been accurately captured in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold.

Not just the locales were accurate. Peppered with the jargon of statecraft, full of insider slang, le Carré’s exposure presented the complex chess game played by the Great Powers, of which the actual protagonists in his novels were contemptuously dismissive. Minor minions mostly, they were more pawns in the office politics of their bosses in ‘the Circus’ (as le Carré calls the spy agency) rather than defenders of the ‘free world’ as portrayed in Hollywood extravaganzas.

It is as good an introduction to realpolitik as you can get in any political science course. And much more entertaining.

R Srinivasan, former editor of BusinessLine, is a Delhi-based journalist

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Published on December 15, 2020
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