Not a Colony

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The novelist who came in from the Cold War

  • July 6, 2005 9:05 pm

He’s made a career spinning tales of East-West espionage. But as John le Carré tells ALAN FREEMAN, his newest novel reflects a brave new world of U.S. ‘hyperpower’ — and his fears about where it is leading us


London — He speaks slowly and calmly. He has the soft accent and intonation of an Oxford graduate and onetime teacher at Eton, and uses the language of a master wordsmith. But John le Carre is a very angry man.
At 72, David John Moore Cornwell is probably the world’s best-known spy writer, though his novels have a literary quality few others can match. Since writing his first novel more than 40 years ago as a young diplomat and intelligence officer in Germany, le Carré has published 19 titles, including such classics of the genre as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Russia House.

His latest book, Absolute Friends, combines le Carré’s fascination with the Cold War and his current bête noire: a burning conviction that the war against terror unleashed by the United States is a threat to world peace as great as the evil it’s supposed to be fighting.

The novel tells the story of a Briton named Ted Mundy and a German called Sasha, the son of a Lutheran pastor with a shady Nazi past, who become “absolute friends” in the near-revolutionary ferment of West Berlin in the late 1960s.

They end up as double agents for the British during the Cold War and resume their friendship years after the fall of the Berlin Wall when they resume their lives as spooks in the run-up to the war in Iraq, ending up as victims of what le Carré calls the “neoconservative junta” that now rules Washington.

The novel goes back to a familiar theme and old territory: Germany during the Cold War. And his descriptions of people and places are as evocative as ever. But le Carré denies suffering from a case of what contemporary Germans call Ostalgie, nostalgia for the old East Germany.

“I’m much more interested in the organic procession of history. I’m not wishing for the good old days of the Cold War,” says the author. “The reverse: What I find extremely upsetting is the speed with which the one hyperpower has recreated an atmosphere of terror.”

His views on the Iraq war are peppered throughout the novel, which was completed in June of 2003. “The war on Iraq was illegitimate … It was a criminal and moral conspiracy. No provocation, no link with al-Qaeda, no weapons of Armageddon. Tales of complicity and Osama were self-serving bullshit. It was an old colonial war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty, and it was launched by a clique of war-hungry Judeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America’s post-9/11 psychopathy.”

Le Carré shares his time between his principal home in Cornwall and a lovely Victorian brick house on a private road near Hampstead Heath, an oasis of village-like gentility just a few blocks from London’s bustle.

The sitting room is filled with comfortable furniture — nothing that indicates his immense success as a writer — and le Carré himself is dressed in a simple sweater and comfortable trousers.

When le Carré offers a visitor a glass of water, a casually dressed, middle-aged man comes in with a large Evian bottle on a tray.

For a novelist who long eschewed interviews, le Carré can’t stop talking about Bush, Blair and the war on terror. “I don’t like the term ‘war on terror’ because it presupposes that you turn an ideological, religious war into a territorial conflict.”He blames the wave of terror in the Middle East “first and foremost on the creation of the state of Israel and the unceasing conflict that’s arisen there. If we could solve the Palestine-Israel problem, we’d be halfway to solving a whole lot of other problems. If you believe, as I do, that Israel must survive, that Jews deserve a homeland, it is now at least possible to say that they’re going about it the wrong way. But already, that makes me an anti-Semite. … When I wrote The Little Drummer Girl,” his 1983 novel that focused on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, he notes, “I received the most disgusting letters from American-Jewish organizations. None was from Israel.”

Le Carré believes the world is suffering from three forms of fundamentalism. He doesn’t talk much about Islamic fundamentalism, saving his harshest criticism for the alliance between Christian evangelism and what he calls Zionist fundamentalism. “Doesn’t anybody ever talk about Zionist fundamentalism, those American-Jewish settlers in the settlements? You hear the same racist junk and the same bloodthirsty talk and the same indifference to life and death.”

Le Carré bristles at suggestions he may be anti-Israel or anti-Semitic. “I’m not even an anti-Zionist. … I want Israel to survive. And I think that every step that [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon has taken compounds the situation.”

When it’s recalled to him that Bush and Sharon were both elected and can be replaced by voters, while the likes of Saddam Hussein rule as despots for decades, le Carré shoots back: “Do you suppose that Bush was legally elected? Do you suppose that it is democratic to dismantle rights in America that the forefathers of the present politicians fought for bitterly? Do you suppose we’re offering a democratic example through Guantanamo? Do you think it democratic to lie, persistently and deliberately, to a population that has elected, or not elected, you?

“So don’t please fall into the trap of believing this is a battle between the civilized and the uncivilized world. That’s the first colonial misconception. This is a battle between hyperpower and non-hyperpower. It’s a battle between majorities and minorities. Never was there such an unequal war fought on such spurious grounds in my memory, except possibly if we go back to Suez.”

Absolute Friends did not start off as a book about the war against terror. Le Carré started blocking out his plan for the book prior to the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and planned to write a book about the emerging wave of anti-globalization protests. He thought a new generation of Baader-Meinhof-style terrorists might be emerging, which is why he decided to concentrate on the stories of Ted and Sasha, both of whom had their origins in the 1968 generation of revolutionaries.

But after Sept. 11, his focus switched to the U.S.-led war against terror. “I watched with horror how the American media and the American public was gulled into believing that Saddam had a part in the Twin Towers. … Where the hell were the Democrats then, where was the American press, how can you be proud of that, how can you call that the voice of democracy?”

He is disappointed with the decision of British Prime Minister Tony Blair to lead Britain into war alongside the United States. He recalls marking Blair’s victory in the 1997 general election with a giant party. “Everybody came and we wept and embraced each other that all those dreadful years of rot from the Conservative Party were over.”

When it comes to Iraq, he is convinced that Blair did something “pragmatically, diplomatically nearly mad: He promised to go to war with Bush whether or not he could deliver Europe or the United Nations.” He believes that Blair is shaped both by his love of acting and his abilities as a lawyer, which combine to create “an alarming conviction that his charm and his eloquence will overcome what a cooler head” would say should not be done.

As a writer, Le Carré describes himself as a Luddite in terms of technology, avoiding computers and admitting complete ignorance of the Web. But he still believes in first-hand research. Before writing The Tailor of Panama several years ago, he travelled to Val d’Or, the northern Quebec mining town, for about 10 days to get a feel for the kind of place where one of his characters escapes to. “I just hung out there. There was an old priest who told me about the stories of the old mining community. And he spoke beautifully about the responsibilities of the whores in the whore houses, because these guys were cut off … and the girls have to provide domestic comfort.”

Le Carré admits having a soft spot for Canada. “You have a national temperament which I greatly enjoy, and it’s not just about differentiating yourselves from the United States.”

For Absolute Friends, he returned to Berlin and to Bavaria, where he spent time following the guides at one of the chateaus built by Bavaria’s Mad King Ludwig. It’s where the reader finds Ted Mundy at the start of Absolute Friends, eking out a living shepherding tourists through Ludwig’s crazy folly.

Le Carré clearly senses the fact that in Absolute Friends he has crossed a line and written much more than a thriller. “One of the reasons I stick out is that nobody else is writing political novels. Some of my readers will walk away from it in disgust,” he admits, though his publishers don’t seem overly worried. The first U.S. printing is a cool 310,000 copies.