John le Carr

Master of the secret world : John le Carri on deception, storytelling and American hubris.


Andrew Ross
October 29, 1996 1:00AM (UTC)

john le Carri says he would like to get a few more novels under his belt. Then one day, at the appropriate time, he imagines that someone will appear behind him, hammer at the ready, who will say, "Okay, that's enough." If his latest novel, his 16th since 1961, is any indication, that day remains far off.

In "The Tailor of Panama", le Carri, at age 65, exhibits an energy that critics feared he had lost with the passing of the Cold War. He also shows a previously unheralded knack for
pure farce. At least, le Carri says, he hasn't plunged his friends into depression this time. Which doesn't mean that he has lost his cold moral vision, nor the internal demons that drive him to write.

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We talked with le Carri during a brief stopover in Los Angeles, where he was visiting two of his sons and assorted grandchildren.


In your acknowledgments, you say this book would not have been written had it not been for Graham Greene's "Our Man in Havana." Greene subtitled his book "An Entertainment," not a word usually associated with le Carri. If you had to put a label on "The Tailor of Panama," what would it be?

Greene was ill-advised to categorize his own work. I think that is a job for the literary bureaucracy and not for the writer. But if I had to put a name to it, I would wish that all my books were entertainments. I think the first thing you've got to do is grab the reader by the ear, and make him sit down and listen. Make him laugh, make him feel. We all want to be entertained at a very high level. That is the beginning of the relationship, the symbiosis between the writer and the reader.

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Still, the antic, comic elements in "The Tailor of Panama" will come as a surprise to many of your readers. You certainly seem to be in a lighter mood here.

I think I'm in the same mood as ever, but in some ways more mature. I guess you could say that, at 65, when you've seen the world shape up as I have, there are only two things you can do: laugh or kill yourself. I think my leading character effectively does both.

That world is certainly present in the book, but you also deeply and passionately explore character, as well as external events, this time.

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In some ways it's a very personal book. I was exploring the relationship between myself and my own fabricator. Anybody in the creative business, as you might call it, has some sense of guilt about fooling around with fact, that you're committiing larceny, that all of life is material for your fabulations. That was certainly Harry Pendel's position. So I found some kind of buzz running between me and the main character, which I had not really felt since "A Perfect Spy."

Pendel's ability to create worlds out of whole cloth, as you write, was necessary to fill major gaps in his psyche. It was also ultimately destructive to himself and the people he loved best. Do you feel some of those gaps yourself?

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Yes, I suppose I do feel some of those gaps myself. What Harry did is, in a sense, merely an exaggeration of what we all do to coexist. We lie to one another every day, in the sweetest way, often unconsciously. We dissemble "Yes, darling, I'm fine." We dress ourselves and compose ourselves in order to present ourselves to one another.

Now Pendel took that a little far. But people who've had very unhappy childhoods are pretty good at inventing themselves. If nobody invents you for yourself, nothing is left but to invent yourself for others. It became destructive in Harry's case when his "gift" was put to political use, until, in a sense, too much was asked of him. It's rather like an artist whose bluff is called.

You mentioned "A Perfect Spy," which you've said was really about your own father, a con man. Are there shades of your father again in this book?

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Yes, in Uncle Benny, in the criminal background, and the fun that Uncle Benny was. They are like the court of people who frequented my father's house. He loved all those immigrants, all those striving guys from different walks of life, whether they were criminal or not.

Uncle Benny is Jewish, from the East End of London. Did you have any fears, in tackling Jewish characters and using their vernacular, that people might say you were embracing anti-Semitic stereotypes?

I have carried that label around with me ever since I wrote "The Little Drummer Girl." I received such awful letters from organized Jewish groups that I never felt on safe ground after that. My great sin was suggesting that the state of Israel that Palestine was in fact a twice-promised land.

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Still, I didn't feel queasy about addressing the tradition of Jewish tailors in the East End. It's so deeply embedded, and so historically extended, that most of the good jokes are true. There was a community of rascally Jewish tailors. The insurance companies, many of which were Jewish, referred to "Jewish lightning" when unfortunate fires burned down warehouses in the East End. It was a period when Jews from the ghettos and the shtetls of eastern Europe set up their own sweatshops in London, and terribly exploited their own families, necessarily perhaps, in order to undercut the cost of mass manufacture. They lived in wretched circumstances, fighting bare-knuckled in the streets, and always the underdog as every ethnic community moving into the East End of London has been. It is just a chunk of history. There were a lot of old, Jewish tailors who had wonderful tales to tell, most of them far more rascally than I dared to relate in the book.

Apart from Graham Greene, there were hints of Evelyn Waugh, especially "Scoop."

You haven't mentioned P.G. Wodehouse. I would like to think that the master was in there somewhere. I don't think I consciously reach for any of that stuff, but they're part of literary memory; they're what's in the pot.

In the Personal Best essay you wrote for Salon, you described Ford Maddox Ford's "The Good Soldier" as one of the finest, though neglected, novels of the 20th Century. That was also a story about deceit, which you return to time and time again. How much of an influence was Ford on your writing?

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It was the solitude of the deceit and the pity with which Ford described the deceiver. In an extreme case that is the condition in which all of us live in some ways: The longing we have to communicate cleanly and directly with people is always obstructed by qualifications and often with concern about how our messages will be received whether we will lose face because those messages will be received untruthfully. In "The Good Soldier," it seemed to me that Edward Ashburnham was really a decently-motivated victim of deceit.

Like Alec Leamass ("The Spy Who Came In From The Cold"), Jerry Westerby ("The Honorable Schoolboy"), Harry Pendel. Even George Smiley

Remember Graham Green's dictum that childhood is the bank balance of the writer. I think that all writers feel alienated. Most of us go back to an alienated childhood in some way or another. I know that I do. That is the crucible really. By the age of nine or 10, I knew, like Harry Pendel, that I had to cut my own cloth and make my own way. Harry felt the lash; all the circumstances in his life compounded to make him a man who looked inward rather than outward. He really believes he's responsible for the whole world because it is he who doesn't fit in with it.

Sixteen novels later, do you still feel that way?

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Yes, I think I do. Of course you get craftier with writing; and, probably, once you're comfortable with a perspective upon life, you go back to certain situations and work them. I am at a stage in my life now quite late where I am completely reconciled to what I am as a writer. I know what I can and can't do. I love writing. I feel it is my best time. But I still feel, as I think most creative people do, absolutely isolated. And, as Pendel does, I am still making order out of chaos by reinvention. I suppose I had a more organized sense of chaos as I approached this story than I have had before, and therefore a greater urgency to tell it.

Are you more reconciled to the outer workings of the world, or at least the spy world?

There are some perceptions I feel I have now that I didn't have before. One of them relates to the difference between experience and news. In every war zone that I've been in, there has been a reality and then there has been the public perception of why the war was being fought. In every crisis, in every confrontation that has come my way, the issues have been far more complex than the public has been allowed to know.

Take the simple issue of Operation Just Cause. Simple ha, ha when George Bush, to get away from the "wimp factor," launched an invasion against a client state of the CIA because the CIA's former agent (Manuel Noriega) had run amok. Add to that the question whether of the treaty between Jimmy Carter and (former Panamanian leader) Omar Torrijos was really going to be honored by the Americans in the future. Add to that again the increasing Japanese influence in the region, which was at that time a matter of great concern to the U.S. Finally, add the concerns of big American corporations who wanted to invest vastly in the two ports at either end of the canal. What you get is a story infinitely more complex than the U.S. having to go in and quell a madman who had the temerity to have his troops beat up American women in the streets.

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You differentiate between news and experience, but a lot of your readers think they may be getting the straight news especially about intelligence agencies when the fact is you are making up characters and situations. Have we taken your books a little too seriously?

Yes, I am quite sure that's the case. I have to accept it as a compliment, of course, because every writer wants to be believed. But every writer knows he is spurious; every fiction writer would rather be credible than authentic.

What's the difference?

Authentic is non-fiction, the reality. My stories have to resolve themselves. There has to be a beginning, a middle and an end. In the authentic world, almost no espionage case is ever resolved, because you don't want it to be resolved. You want the man or the woman to stay in place, to continue working for you. If he or she loses her effectiveness, you fade the person out and life goes on. Now, that doesn't make a story that's "the cat sat on the mat." I have to tell "the cat sat on the dog's mat." I have to produce the tension, the danger, and so on. The disciplines of storytelling require that I shape, out of the monotony and everyday life of espionage, something that has a beginning, a middle and an end. That's already contrary to the reality.

Then, I have to introduce levels of intelligence on both sides and in each protagonist, which very probably do not pertain. I have to introduce levels of moral doubt, self-doubt, which may not pertain. I mean a guy who just takes 10,000 bucks to go and do something probably is not asking whether he can reconcile this to his maker. But in my books, he has to.

So I use the furniture of espionage to amuse the reader, to make the reader listen to me, because most people like to read about intrigue and spies. I hope to provide a metaphor for the average reader's daily life. Most of us live in a slightly conspiratorial relationship with our employer and perhaps with our marriage. I think what gives my works whatever universality they have is that they use the metaphysical secret world to describe some realities of the overt world.

You actually invented espionage jargon.

Spies tell me that it's now entered their language! It's been more than 40 years since I had anything to do with the secret world. But as I've gone on writing I've really just refined the uses of that world as my private theater. Added and subtracted and changed it, tried to make it reflect the mood of the day.

How does that play out in "The Tailor of Panama"?

In the story we have somebody working for an entirely corrupt British institution who is soliciting intelligence which is fabricated. We don't know if he knows it's fabricated. We do know this: as far as he's concerned, it plays upstairs, they like it in the board room, so he lets it ride. In the board room they're already re-writing it because they want to serve it up to the politicos and their customers and to the people who finance the secret service. So we've got at every level, cost effectiveness, price consciousness and privatization all these extolled virtues that Mrs. Thatcher so admired in Reaganomics and imported into Britain. In my story, we've got them running wild, which seems to me to be a metaphor for our time.

You don't paint a very pretty picture of "Operation Just Cause."

Bush's invasion of Panama in the end was probably necessary, and it was certainly successful. But, as Richard Koster (an American novelist living in Panama) said, the United States performed a brilliant piece of surgery for lung cancer on a patient to whom it had been providing cigarettes for the last 30 years. By using it as a training base, as a place for conducting wars against perceived rebels and communists, as some kind of launching pad against Castro for intelligence purposes, and getting very mixed up in the drugs trade. There is a story true or not, but I suspect it is true that as part of the deal with Noriega, the CIA turned a blind eye to the flow of large quantities of cocaine into California in return for guns and arms to the Contras. It may be true. It certainly was true in Southeast Asia. I saw that on the ground.

The term "blowback" as we're seeing with the fundamentalist Muslims we armed in Afghanistan comes to mind.

It was inevitable. Americans are "get up and go" by nature; they believe that if you know something, you should do something about it. But when you apply that to an intelligence service taking sides, arming groups, and so on you really are operating on a pretty dangerous basis. Everything has its consequences in this business. Nothing goes away. The deals and the promises that you make today really do come home to roost. The more secrets, sometimes, the more violent the response.

Again, speaking of news and experience, your portrayal of the press is pretty unflattering.

In the last 15 or 20 years, I've watched the British press simply go to hell. There seems to be no limit, no depths to which the tabloids won't sink. I don't know who these people are but they're little pigs. Even with the "quality" papers, the standard of literacy is pathetic. Journalists pipe their stories right into the paper, and nobody really has time even to correct the spelling.

When (Rupert) Murdoch took over a great chunk of the British press, the remaining newspapers had a choice whether to go up-market or down-market. Because it is the custom of people in the entertainment and information business to underrate the public, they selected, almost to a man, the downward route. Fabrication by a journalist the story too good to check out is almost par for the course. I've ceased to give interviews in Britain, having read that I was in the habit of frequenting a guru in India. In my entire life I've spent but three days in India. Never in my life have I spoken to any guru.

We haven't see a le Carri book on the big screen, or small, since "The Russia House." Why not?

We should have seen "The Night Manager" by now. Paramount paid a great fortune for it. For some reason it simply fell into some kind of hole. Sydney Pollack was supposed to have directed it. He's gone on to something else. Robert Towne was supposed to have written it. Whatever he wrote was, shall we say, not held to be satisfactory. To say any more would get me straight into a libel court. I hope that we shall see a movie of "Our Game," but until there is some kind of studio announcement, I shouldn't get into it. I'm getting mating signals on "The Tailor of Panama " from the industry, but nothing signed.

Almost like clockwork you produce a new book every two years. Are you already thinking about your next one?

This one went so quickly. I was still correcting proofs seven weeks ago. I haven't had much time to think, but yes, I have an idea of where I would go. When you're my age and you see a story, you better go for it pretty quickly. I'd just like to get a few more novels under my belt. Then I'd like to have somebody standing behind me with a hammer who says, "Okay, that's enough." Thank heaven, though, one of the few mistakes I haven't made is to talk about the unwritten book.

I hear that you have joined the computer age, albeit with trepidation.

We have an extra telephone line installed and we have a Mac. I think by Christmas we'll be all set up and ready to go. It's my wife, Jane, who will actually sit at the controls. I am moving gradually towards it. I accept that it is quite impossible to stand aside from it. I happen to write by hand. I don't even type. I'll have to change my spots.

Le Carri goes online?

It's going to help enormously at the most elementary level of research. I'm really a library man, or second-hand book man. In the past I have had to pay out a lot of money to get BBC monitoring service reports and that stuff. It's all been a laborious business. The notion that we can really plug into really huge amounts of data, which could be interesting, is really wonderful. Of course I've come to it late, but one does, eventually.

Of your 16 novels, where would you fit "The Tailor of Panama"?

I think the ones I want to be buried with are "A Perfect Spy" and this one. I have the most affection for the characters in those stories, and somehow, they came the closest to the bone. By closest to the bone I mean as near as I want to come to my own center, the most intimate and personal to myself. And the laughs. It's wonderful to meet one's friends after they've read "The Tailor of Panama" and find them grinning all over their faces for a change, instead of being plunged into depression.


Andrew Ross

Andrew Ross is Salon's executive vice president.

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