Slinkers, Jailers, Soldiers, Lies
British author John Le Carre's latest novel, A Most Wanted Man, was inspired by his encounters with a man who spent four and a half years at Guantanamo Bay.
PENZANCE, ENGLAND — The old spy returned to Hamburg, a city he once loved and was forced to abandon. His thoughts were filled with characters he'd met over the years: the drunken Scot banker who harangued him, one evening in Vienna, to open a numbered account; the aloof young Chechen with a superiority complex; the German girl of high morals and good family. In his mind, they began to talk to each other.
He had always felt a special regret about Hamburg, invaded by Napoleon, bombed flat by the Allies, later a foxhole for the Baader-Meinhof Gang and Mohamed Atta. Perhaps by telling the city's story, he would make amends.
The journey from the city on the Elbe to the edge of the Cornish coast is a long one, practically from Europe's shoulder to its toe. At either end, you'll find John le Carré, or rather David Cornwell, as he was born and is known to friends, family and the taxi drivers of Penzance.
When Cornwell emerges into the sunlight from his cliff-top house, there's no hint of that other, twilight world; there's just a tall, courtly man holding four ears of corn picked from his garden. “The weather's been so bad this year,” he says, looking at the cobs dwarfed in large hands. “Well. At least we have sun today.”
This is what 45 years of successful spy writing buys you: a little bit of paradise on the edge of the world, with no other houses in sight, the sea stretching to Newfoundland, and silence as heavy and comforting as a quilt. The only sounds come from the cliff, where a shrieking falcon occasionally takes flight, and from the kitchen, where Cornwell's wife, Jane, is starting a fish pie for lunch. The only way in is a needle-narrow dirt track with a gate and a forbidding sign at one end. It is not the house of someone who craves human company.
Yet Cornwell's manner is as warm as the day, as he leads a tour of his garden, pointing out succulents and anti-war statuary, stopping to pull snails off a marble bust. “Ah,” he says, gently dropping them to the ground. “Poor, blind Milton.” He strides along, wearing his 76 years lightly, quite jolly – giggly, even – about a recent story that made headlines around the world, suggesting that he had once contemplated defecting to the Russians.
So much success, so much peace, so blessed in family. The jackpot question, for anyone who's read the last few le Carré novels, has got to be: Why so angry? In what furnace does he stoke his rage? The fury is, if anything, at a higher pitch in his new book, A Most Wanted Man, set in Hamburg against the backdrop of a snatch-and-grab known as “extraordinary rendition.”
“I was very angry when I went to Hamburg to start researching the book,” Cornwell says, settling down on his sun porch with a cup of coffee. He uses the past tense, but there's every indication, over the next few hours of conversation, that he's still enraged – about the war in Iraq, over the CIA's “black prisons” and Guantanamo Bay, over the erosion of civil liberties in Britain, and what he sees as a misplaced faith in intelligence services. Spook, heal thyself.
A Most Wanted Man, his 21st novel, centres around Issa, a young half-Chechen of enigmatic background who flees a Turkish prison and ends up in the care of an idealistic German lawyer, Annabel. The novelist specializes in these beautiful lady dreamers – Tessa in The Constant Gardener, Charlie in The Little Drummer Girl. Accuse him of it, and he says with a disarming laugh, “That's the joke about my writing – that I can't write women. It's because I grew up so late.”
In Hamburg, Cornwell had “an extraordinary stroke of luck” when he met Carla Hornstein, a young journalist working with Murat Kurnaz, a Turkish-German Muslim who'd been wrongly detained, tortured and sent to Guantanamo Bay for 41/2 years. At one point, the three were in a car – the bitter former prisoner, the secular German idealist wearing a head scarf in deference to him, and the worldly older Brit. “I thought, ‘Let's imagine the circles of desire here that are unfulfilled.'” Other figures he'd met in the past, like the dissolute banker and the Chechen fighter, seeped into the story. Cold War-weary German spies he had known came together to form Gunther Bachmann, a maverick in the European “espiocracy,” who tries to save Issa from the clutches of his American counterparts.
In every dark corner of the novel is Hamburg, the city where Cornwell was stationed in the British Foreign Service in the mid-sixties and from which his masters made him flee when the publicity around his breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, got too hot. “I started a love affair, and then walked out on it.”
A helicopter thunders by, on its way from Penzance to the Isles of Scilly. “Terrible noise,” says Cornwell mildly, looking up. The voice is cultured, public-school educated, and beautifully pitched, even when it's underscored with anger – as when he gets up, unexpectedly, to mime the water boarding that Kurnaz suffered. It's only when he bends down that you notice his tiny, discreet hearing aid.
“I've interrogated people – God knows, not in such dire circumstances as this,” he says. “Under torture, people will say anything. That's not what you want in the intelligence service.”
He'd been up until 10 o'clock the night before, on the phone with fact checkers from The New Yorker on a piece called The Madness of Spies. It's non-fiction, based on his own time in MI5, but drawing on that favourite theme of his fiction: Spies are essentially untrustworthy, as hollow as Easter eggs, seduced by the glamour of their trade and driven mad by the reality. To question the value of intelligence these days “is heresy” he says, but a necessary one: “It's what got us into this war.”
He never used to be open about his days “spooking around,” but time or distance or that slow-burning anger has made him more expansive over the years. When he talks about his time in the service, it's largely about the unintentional comedy around the edges: How can you spot the spy at an embassy party? “He's the very charming 35-year-old chap who has some strange private passion like running greyhounds, a little bit of larceny, and a language or two.”
Cornwell laughs as he says this, as animated now as he was outraged earlier. This has always been the muscle of his novels: His deft portrayals of the would-be spy's seduction, and the inevitably grimy aftermath. Even the prime minister, he says with relish, looks forward to the dark men of the spy service knocking on his green baize door.
Cornwell was probably ripe for the plucking, with his fluency in French and German, his moderately good public school, his shredded family background. He'd been raised in the unorthodox household of his radical grandfather, the mayor of a small town in Dorset. There'd been a mother who abandoned him, and a charismatic, unreliable con-man father (see Magnus Pym, trying to fall far from the tree, in A Perfect Spy.) No wonder the spymasters found him so willing in the early years of the Cold War, appealing both to his patriotism and latent snobbery: “Our mission, as it was high-mindedly put to us, was to speak truth to power. … We saw ourselves as the people who enabled lesser people to sleep in their beds at night.”
He has had the luxury of a lifetime to dwell on how this came about; to think about how much his upbringing resembled that of the arch-traitor Kim Philby, who also suffered a wayward father. “If you've been brought up in that anarchic situation by a maverick dad, as a boy it deprives you of your self-pride, it makes you conspire in your mind about getting even with society. There are two ways to go, really.” There is an uncharacteristically long pause. “And he chose the other way.”
The other way, of course, was to become a criminal. Philby defected to the Russians, something that Cornwell never contemplated. A recent newspaper report suggested otherwise, and caused ripples around the world. It came about when Cornwell – no stranger to the bottle and to sharing it, as any guest in his house soon realizes – was musing with a British journalist at the end of a long day.
Had he ever thought of going over, the journalist wondered. Cornwell considered the question. He said that the nearer you came to your enemy, the more fascinating the prospect became, academically. He told the journalist that the women in the British Secret Service who eavesdropped on foreign spies' families became tearfully obsessed with their lives, as if they were soap-opera characters. But it was all in the realm of theory.
Cornwell opened the paper on Sunday to see the headline: Tinker Tailor Soldier Defector: le Carré Nearly Left the West. “It was hilarious!” he roars with laughter. His four sons e-mailed to ask when he'd be packing his bags for Moscow. He found a comment left by “Nick from Seattle” on a newspaper website: “I always knew,” wrote Nick, “that he was as pink as a flamingo.”
America is a bit of a sore spot. Cornwell considers himself not an enemy but “a disappointed fan.” The American characters in A Most Wanted Man, however, are bogeymen from a child's nightmare, the least fleshed-out people in the whole book. That, he says, was a deliberate decision: He honestly doesn't know what's going on inside their heads. He hasn't been to the United States since the war began in Afghanistan, but wants to visit: Ten of his 12 grandchildren live there. “They're all spy mad.”
Another helicopter shatters the peace. Coffee is done, and now it is time – not quite noon – for something more festive. “Champagne?” he says. Yes, definitely, champagne. He leads another tour, this one of his study, overlooking the sea, where he writes in longhand. (Jane types up the work in the afternoon.)
There are trophies everywhere, but only subtle, ironic ones. Anything else would be vulgar. A framed letter from Cornwell's publisher, Victor Gollancz, in 1963, says that his advance for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold has risen by a princely £25 to £150. Faxes and e-mails come rolling in; there are several movie projects in the works.
It's a most unlikely cauldron for steeping righteous indignation – more like a happy writer's happy home. “I know,” says the old spy. “I'm supposed to be a miserable bugger, but I have just been so lucky. Unbelievable.”
SOURCE: The Globe & Mail