Artificial Worlds: Fiction, Spying . . . Politics?

By David Ludlum

Spy

photo: Phillip Sidek, public domain

The New York Times Book Review touts the release of a new John le Carré novel, A Legacy of Spies, through an interview by Sarah Lyall (great last name for a spy) of both the father of modern spy novels and his friend Ben Macintyre, author of 11 non-fiction books, mostly on British espionage.

On the chance anyone’s not familiar with le Carré, the write-up credits him with almost single-handedly elevating spy novels from genre fiction to literature (“almost,” because of the significant, occasional contributions of literary writers like Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, and Somerset Maugham). Macintyre gets more specific, calling le Carré’s novels “emotionally and psychologically absolutely true.”

The article notes he popularized “the subversive hypothesis that the spies of East and West were two sides of the same tarnished coin, each as bad as the other . . . espionage painted not in black and white but in shades of gray.”

There’s not a lot of detail about the new book, though somewhat tantalizingly, we learn it’s “a coda of sorts” to 1963’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, which the interviewer calls possibly most responsible for readers’ “le Carré addiction.” In this sequel, the children of the two main characters of the earlier book sue security services over the fate of their parents.

As a writer trying my own hand at espionage fiction, I was especially interested in what the two authors cited as similarities between espionage and novel-writing, including this exchange:

Macintyre: Spying and fiction are not entirely different processes. You try to create an artificial world. And the better and more realistic and more emotionally believable you can make that world, as either a spy or a novelist, the better you are going to be at it.

Le Carré: And you must also contemplate all the varieties of a person’s character. Could she be this? Could he be that? Can I turn him or her into that other person? All of those are actually the serious preoccupations of a novelist.

Macintyre: . . . And because spies invent their world, and often invent their pasts, they’re tremendously unreliable narrators. You have a wonderful backdrop of truth and nontruth to work against.

In a sense, lying, when it comes to facts, is at the heart of both espionage and fiction. Le Carré attributes his ability to create fictional worlds of duplicitous characters to his upbringing by a father who was a flamboyant con man, one with the temerity to run for Parliament despite having served time in jail. Another exchange:

Le Carré: And I had to lie about my parental situation while I was at boarding school.

Macintyre: What you’ve just described — is it the root of your fiction? Your ability to think yourself into someone else?

Le Carré: If my father said he was going to come and take me out, it was as likely as not that he wouldn’t show up. I would say to the other boys, I had a wonderful day out, when I had really been sitting in a field somewhere.

Inevitably I was making up stories to myself, retreating into myself. And then there was the genetic inheritance I got from my father. . . . He had a huge capacity for invention. He had absolutely no relationship to the truth.

Some readers won’t be surprised that a conversation dwelling on espionage, the Russians, and the slipperiness of truth segues to consideration of President Trump, of whom le Carré says, “There is not a grain of truth there.”

He suspects the Russians hold compromising information on Trump. “The mentality that is operating in Russia now is absolutely, as far as Putin is concerned, no different to the mentality that drove the most exotic conspiracies during the Cold War,” he says. “It worked then, it works now.”

Macintyre is of the opinion that the Russians do have compromising information on the U.S. President, termed kompromat. Their motive: “Then [Trump] has a stone in his shoe for the rest of his administration.” He calls the Russian lawyer who met with the President’s son and top campaign officials at Trump Tower, and who may or may not be working with the government, “straight out of one of our books.” She’s foggy and deniable. “It’s called maskirovka,” Macintyre says, “little masquerade — where you create so much confusion and uncertainty and mystery that no one knows what the truth is.”

Le Carré caps off this discussion by speculating that the “smoking gun” might be documents on plans for a Trump Tower in Moscow. “There are bits of scandal which, if added up, might suggest he went to Russia for money. And that would then fit in with the fact that he isn’t half as, a tenth as rich as he pretends to be.”

Guest poster David Ludlum works as an editor and marketing professional for a wealth management organization and is writing an espionage novel.

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