In 2011, when John Le Carre (born David Cornwell), who died on Monday at 89, was nominated for the Booker Prize, it took just 45 minutes for him to issue a statement saying, “I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn”. Le Carre’s withdrawal was a snub to the English literary world, which had long enforced a caste system between literary fiction and genre fiction. Yes, he wrote about espionage, but he was no Ian Fleming, and George Smiley is no James Bond.
Le Carre spent his early career, till the phenomenal success of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), as a spy. While he never broke the silence that his erstwhile profession demanded, the air of authenticity in his work is often attributed to his days at MI6. What makes his work literarily significant are the themes he explored. For over 50 years, Le Carre wrote of fathers and sons (Single & Single), of love and longing (The Night Manager) and how those on the frontlines of ideologically-driven battles are the ones who end up making the greatest moral compromises.
After the end of the Cold War, many thought that Le Carre’s best was behind him. After all, part of what made the mild-mannered, portly, cuckold George Smiley, the protagonist of the Trilogy — Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People — so appealing was the inevitable dissonance between the high-minded rhetoric of the Cold War and the compromises and costs of fighting it. But Le Carre definitively established with Absolute Friends, which dealt with terrorism, and The Constant Gardner (on the corruptions of the global pharmaceutical industry), that the end of the Cold War was not the end of history, and certainly not of his literature. Perhaps, most importantly, in the age of ultranationalistic pride, his characters established firmly that patriotism, in art and in government, is far more complex than “my country, right or wrong”.
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines