John Le Carré’s extraordinary thriller A Perfect Spy is his most autobiographical work, drawing on his own early life and experiences. The result is a novel that is both a thrill ride and a moving portrayal of a life marked by subterfuge and betrayal. In this fascinating blog, Folio’s Fiction Editor Sinéad O’Callaghan explores the incredible plot and the real experiences that inspired Le Carré’s masterwork.
The first time I picked up A Perfect Spy by John le Carré, I was immediately drawn to its pace. Slightly slower than his Smiley novels, it picks apart a man and his relationships, and the effect that a cataclysmic person can have on someone else’s life. Magnus Pym is an island, a man used to manipulating his personality so it best suits those around him. Having mysteriously disappeared from the public eye following his father’s death and an illustrious spy career (which he is now accused of betraying), he retreats to a boarding house in a non-descript town where he chronicles his life on paper to send to his son. Pym will not make the same mistakes his father did.
The novel switches between present day and vibrant flashbacks, with one man remaining the focal point throughout: con man and charmer extraordinaire, Rick Pym. There is something uncanny about his mannerisms; his eyes seem to bore through the page. When he speaks, you can hear his voice in your ear. What’s perhaps even more real than Rick himself is his relationship with Magnus, one which goes beyond the traditional father-son bond. That’s where Ronnie Cornwell comes in.
Before John le Carré was a novelist (and household name), he was David Cornwell, an intelligence officer for M16, just like his protagonist. Unlike Pym, Cornwell has never been accused of betraying his country or spying for the enemy but the differences seem to stop there. Like Magnus, Cornwell lost his mother at a young age. He was sent to a brutish prep school, studied languages abroad and had a father uncannily like Pym’s antagonist.
Ronnie Cornwell was the ultimate confidence man. An associate of the Kray twins, he made and lost several fortunes through elaborate schemes, and was jailed more than once for insurance fraud. Young David found himself inventing elaborate stories about his father’s whereabouts, coming up with excuses as to why his father hadn’t paid his schooling bills. In a way, it was Ronnie who taught David the world of espionage. He became a prince in his father’s corrupt kingdom; an expert at deflecting the truth and a double agent.
Le Carré’s work tends to feature worthier substitute fathers, most notably George Smiley who coincidently is the smartest and most powerful spy Britain has ever known. Perhaps Smiley and his escapades provided him with breathing space, time to explore the good without being concerned by the sinister that lies behind any pure moment, time to come to terms with a man who inadvertently shaped him into the writer and spy he was to become.
After exploring cold world politics, Israeli espionage and everything in between, Cornwell came to a story he couldn’t escape any longer; his own. Emptying a lifetime of baggage onto the page, he unveiled a fable of his past, making direct use of his own experiences of a ‘secret world’. A Perfect Spy is a measured tale, although it is filled with emotion. It is one of love, of betrayal, and of the tentative link that binds them both. Because although Magnus Pym has tried so hard to not become his father – a liar, a swindler, a twister of truth – it is his father to whom he owes his greatest skills; like Rick he has betrayed everyone, owing nothing to anyone except himself. He is the Perfect Spy.
Perhaps that’s why I keep coming back to the novel. It is everything le Carré proclaims the art of spying – and the art of fiction – to be about: the creation of false identities, of elaborate rouses and plots, lies both ridiculous and close to the truth. However, it is also at its heart a paean to one’s parents; how we idolise and emulate them, but also how we wish to become nothing like them (only to end up more like them than we ever thought we would be). It is probably the closest thing we have to understanding David Cornwell the man, although a great spy will never fully reveal his true self. I look forward to seeing what secrets I uncover when I next pick up my battered copy.
Order A Perfect Spy here.