"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Spy novels are supposed to be a form of escapism, and most still feature cardboard characters, easy moral decisions and reasonably tidy endings. But a separate vein in espionage fiction, with its roots in novels by Joseph Conrad and Graham Greene, takes the spy — an assumer of false identities and a trader in information, compelled by circumstances to betray his own values — as an exemplar of the modern man or woman: just like us, only more so. John le Carré is today’s master of the unromantic espionage novel. In “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” and his other books, hardly anyone is glamorous and by the end you can’t always be sure who, if anyone, is on the side of right. As a result, le Carré never runs out of timely material, no matter what the geopolitical situation may be.
Since the end of the Cold War, le Carré — who years ago admitted to playing a “tiny” part in the conflict during a stint as a British spy in Germany from 1959 to 1964 — has found plenty to write about in the contemporary scene. From the U.S. invasion of Panama in 1989 to the soulless skulduggery of multinational pharmaceutical corporations in Africa, he seems more engaged — and decidedly more outraged — than ever before. Le Carré’s latest novel, “Absolute Friends” (to be published Jan. 12), takes on the War on Terror and the U.S. invasion of Iraq; if anything, he finds the wilderness of smoke and mirrors surrounding both more treacherous than the old-school intrigues between the Soviets and the West.
The hero of “Absolute Friends,” Ted Mundy, is an Englishman with international yearnings, a former spy who was dragged into the secret world in the 1970s by Sasha, a German-born friend of his firebrand ’60s youth. Reduced in the post-Cold War years to working as a tour guide in one of King Ludwig’s Bavarian castles, Mundy rails against Britain’s support for the war in Iraq. But when Sasha resurfaces and invites Mundy to do more than talk, the choice turns out to be trickier than either anticipates. Salon reached le Carré at his home in England to talk with him about the role of intelligence agencies in the post-Sept. 11 era, the eternal problem of reconciling politics with human decency and his dismay at seeing two nations he admires embroiled in a war he deplores.
What interests you in writing about a character like Mundy, who’s the pawn of a lot of external forces, rather than a man like George Smiley [the protagonist of "Tinker, Tailor" and several other novels], who is usually driving the action?
Sasha and Mundy appealed to me because both men are historical prisms. They’re relics of history. Mundy, of his father’s colonial history and of the unbreakable English class system that sets him up as a member of the chosen class, and Sasha with that appalling background that he comes from, which extends back into Nazism. What brings them together is the feeling, though they never quite express it, that their origins should not become their destinies. They’re determined to make new people of themselves.
I’ve always struggled to reconcile human decency with political necessity. When you talk about the two kinds of character, actually George Smiley is both kinds. He’s somebody who can make things happen but also, during those Cold War years, accepted that he was the creature of almost unstoppable forces. He was a kind of moderator between the two great monoliths. I don’t think it’s quite so easy as to say that there are those who manipulate and those who are manipulated.
Nick Amory, Mundy’s former handler, is another fascinating character.
To me he’s the son of Smiley. He’s inherited all that stuff and he believes in the service he’s performing to his country and the service that he’s a member of. But he’s completely dismayed by the way the world has gone. He says somewhere, “I used to believe that I was right to lie for my country, and now I don’t know what the truth is.”
He seems more lost in a way than Mundy is.
I think we’re all wrestling at the moment, wherever we stand politically — I don’t mean that in party-political terms or doctrinal terms, but however we feel about the present state of affairs — wrestling with interpretations of patriotism and loyalty. As somebody who played his part in the Cold War in a minute way, I think of myself as somebody who loves my country. But it’s taken a terribly wrong step. And therefore my own sense of patriotism is confused.
A wrong step in following the U.S. into the war in Iraq?
Yes. I love America and see America as, historically speaking, the great shining light of liberal thought and opinion and many liberal actions — from Jefferson to Kennedy and beyond. But what with what is happening now, my views are not anti-American but they are profoundly anti-neocon ideologue. I think that a great country is being propelled by the wrong forces and my own country mistook the current. I’m told that Blair could practically run for president in the United States. The comedy is that his position here is anything but stable.
That must be a shock.
It is a shock, especially for those like myself who wept for joy when he was elected at the end of that dreadful post-Thatcher period, finally. It is extraordinary to discover that we voted for somebody whose neoconservative position was really no different to Thatcher’s. Mercifully, he has enacted social reforms to a small degree, but the vision that we had of a more liberal country has, I think, been greatly disappointed.
One aspect of the current war on terrorism that must be particularly interesting to you is the resurgent emphasis on intelligence, especially human intelligence, rather than the high-tech stuff they’d been focusing on in recent years. Yet the old-school intelligence people that you depict in “Absolute Friends” — people like Amory — feel sidelined.
There are two breeds of intelligence people, two kinds of spook. We have people like Amory, who derive their attitudes from the Cold War. I think it’s perfectly true that after the Cold War ended and the secret war against terror and the business of spying on terror got going, as always the new war was being fought with the weapons of the old one and it didn’t work. It’s terribly difficult to spy on a multinational organization that doesn’t oblige you by using all the toys you can catch them out with: telephones, cellphones, radio, codes that you can break. It doesn’t have a command and control structure that you can penetrate. If you get a brave or sufficiently corrupt person to get alongside the leadership, he still doesn’t have anything like access to what used to be thought of as “the plans.” It’s all fragmented. They work in tiny cells. They’ve often transmitted their messages and their money by word of mouth. It’s very, very hard to get into.
That’s one side of it. The technological revolution in intelligence left people with the notion that the human side of intelligence was of secondary importance. I think that’s always been a great nonsense. It was a great nonsense in the Cold War too, even if we did manage to break their codes. I think the CIA and the Brits or whoever else would much rather have had access to Gorbachev’s private secretary than to Gorbachev’s telegrams. Human sources — you can ask them questions, they can reply. You can tell them what to look out for, what to listen for. You can get an impression of whether they think people are lying, which is completely unavailable in technological intelligence. They’re vastly more economic.
Your intelligence budget for the CIA alone is, I think, $30 billion a year. The result is a huge proliferation of junk. The art of refining that and turning it into a lucid statement you can write on a postcard and put in front of a busy politician really is very, very difficult stuff. The intelligence business is threatened by exactly the same bad people that your business is threatened by. In good journalism, you’ve got people back from the field who are sitting behind desks who can smell a rat when it comes in. They can identify the young Turk who has just been taken on by the foreign desk who wants to make his name and may be fabricating. They can look at information obtained and think, “Well that may be planted so that we’ll think that way. But is it really true?”
In the intelligence world, with so much money around, there are tremendously sophisticated peddlers who are just making stuff up, feeding information to the empty areas of your head and taking huge sums of money for it and disappearing into the smoke. And I think some of the intelligence services fell for some of that stuff.
What is the other kind of spook?
The other kind of spook in my book is trying to produce the information that conventional intelligence services wouldn’t or couldn’t produce and conducting the kind of operation they’d shy away from.
Do outfits like the kind you depict in the book actually exist?
I have no idea. But it’s the kind of thing that Donald Rumsfeld’s rather shadowy Office of Special Plans might have been set up to do, that is, to bypass the CIA and the Pentagon’s own Defense Intelligence Agency and to produce, by whatever means, sexed-up proof that certain bad things were happening.
In order to justify policy decisions?
Yes. Here, in Britain, we’ve watched this same process happening. The thing about spying is that it’s simple. It sees itself as a pure science, exactly as very good journalistic reporting is. As with journalism, there are two absolutely sacred areas. One is the sanctity of sources and the other is the objective truth. What we saw here, in the preparation of that disastrous dossier that so embarrassed Colin Powell in the United Nations, was the attempted corruption, if you like, of pure intelligence and, at a certain level, the politicization of the intelligence arm. When you do that as a politician you actually deprive yourself of true objectivity. You say, “I know there are weapons of mass destruction out there, so go and damn well find them!” That’s no way to give a brief. You’ve got to say, “Come to me and tell me what you’ve found.”
Things have come to a pretty pass if you’re making the CIA out to be a beleaguered bastion of integrity.
I’m certainly doing that here. A hundred years ago, for a short time, I was a totally ineffectual spook. What I remember in all seriousness is the extraordinary integrity with which people handled information. They may have gotten it wrong here and there, but they would not be bought off a particular view. And if they didn’t know, they said they didn’t know.
But when the pressure is so intense and politicians are screaming at the spooks, “You say there’s nothing there. How can you prove a negative? You’ve got to say that there’s maybe something there!” That was the level of conversation that was going on. The CIA is not an organization for which I have a natural sympathy, but I have to say that the marginalization of their product — the American taxpayer paid for it, for heaven’s sake, it should have been properly evaluated. Instead of which, a great impatience set in among the policymakers and they did something of almost medieval stupidity, which is to say, “Go and find me a different truth.”
The old saw is that it became difficult to write espionage novels after the end of the Cold War. But you’ve gone on to describe the ways that power has been reconfigured in the world. How do you frame a spy novel now? What do you see as the forces at work?
As with previous books, I’ve just used the furniture of the spy world to tell a fable about our time. What do you mean by “the forces at work”?
In the Smiley novels, the Cold War novels, you have these two superpowers and this very complicated minuet going on between them and also this moral smudging that happens in the course of that. Some people might say that today you don’t have the same clear struggle that you had during that time, but in a way there’s more of a strong moral sense in your recent work. It feels to me that in this book it’s far more clear who’s right and who’s wrong.
I think that a great deal of disenchantment is spoken for here. I did believe that when the Cold War ended there was a moment when the world could be redesigned. A superpower had emerged. Russia was on its knees. The knight had died inside his armor. At that moment, there were wonderful things that could have been done. The biggest question was whether we could resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, which was constantly the tinderbox for the whole of the Middle East and for a great section of world policy. Beyond that, whether the surviving superpower could exist and define itself without the existence of an enemy. Those are the two mysteries that are still in the air.
The bizarre thing is that instead of becoming less ideological, the people who are in charge of the last superpower have become, at least in this administration, even more ideological.
I think they have become insanely ideological. I feel that these are tendentious ideologies and we need to have them clearly defined for us. We’ve almost reached a point, I think, where people should state their religious convictions when they enter high office. It’s certainly of great concern to me. It really matters if a politician believes, for example, that the Jewish people have an absolute right to “Greater Israel.” That’s something we need to know about. If he believes that Islam is something close to the Antichrist, that’s also something we need to hear about.
Do you feel that leaders are insisting that their religious beliefs — not just moral principles, but literal religious beliefs — be enacted in the political realm? That’s not being acknowledged.
People are not acknowledging it, not looking it in the eye, and if you do look at it in the eye, you get into deep trouble. My book’s just come out here [in Britain] and been greatly attacked by the right-wing press and applauded on the whole by the critical press. One argument that’s been used against me is very interesting: that the book is too political to be a novel. It leaves me with the impression that for as long as you write about the status quo, you’re OK. But to take up arms against the status quo is subversive.
There are two ways that those critical of the war have described the motivations behind it. One interpretation is completely mercenary: It’s just about oil. But some of these people — however much we may disagree with them — are also motivated by ideals that are, as you put it, often religious in nature. That’s what’s confusing about it. The left is used to thinking that it has idealism on its side. These people have these ideals that may seem crackpot to us, but they believe they’re going to change the world for the better.
They do. That’s what’s really terrifying. In order to carry out their campaigns, they have to reduce the world to black and white. They have to arrogate to themselves the right to determine what is a bad state and what is a good state. They also arrogate to themselves not just the right to take preemptive action, but to take preventative action. There’s a difference in international law. The effect is that the superpower can say, “We don’t like the look of that country. It has bad intentions, and we will attack it.” It doesn’t have to say that the country is threatening us.
The attack on Iraq was planned, we now know, about three or four years before it took place. It was 9/11 that legitimized it. Through an extraordinary trick of public persuasion in which they were greatly assisted by the corporate media, the neoconservative ideologues persuaded the U.S. to a great extent — one’s told seven out of 10 people — that somehow Saddam was mixed up in the destruction of the twin towers and the attack on the Pentagon. He wasn’t. They admit they have no evidence of this. Anyone who’s taken even one bus ride through the Middle East would surely know that between the secular Baathists of Iraq and the infuriated fundamentalists that follow Osama bin Laden there is no conceivable bond possible. The religious extremists loathed Saddam because Saddam and the Baath Party were secular and anti-clerical.
Are your critics claiming that this new book is too political to be literary?
Too political to be real. My problem is that I think the status quo stinks and I want to say that. I found myself joining the big marches against the war and mingling with people who just thought they had no chance of being heard. There is no political party in England with any power, any force or any credibility that has opposed the war. And so I’ve felt, well, I can do something and I do feel this stuff and I will make a story about it.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)