Text Messages | Spy vs spy

Moments of moral choice define John le Carré’s novels and his latest, which coincides with the death of Soviet agent Goar Vartanian, is no different.

World War II might have had a very different outcome had Operation Long Jump succeeded. Then British prime minister Winston Churchill, United States president Franklin D Roosevelt and Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had never met face to face, an omission that their summit in Tehran in November 1943 was designed to redress. 

On learning about the gathering of his enemies, German fuehrer Adolf Hitler had ordered Nazi agents to assassinate the so-called Big Three. But Soviet spies in Tehran shadowed their German counterparts and stopped the Long Jump plot by outing the would-be assassins. 

Old history, you might say, but on Monday 25 November it flared into life with the death in Moscow at 93 of one of the Soviet agents involved, Goar Vartanian. Born in Armenia in 1926, her family moved to Iran when she was not yet in her teens. Enlisting in an anti-fascist cell at 16, she found not only her life’s work, espionage, but also her future husband, Gevork Vartanian.

Goar was only 17 when she helped uncover the Long Jump plotters. The next 43 years were devoted to being a secret agent, in tandem with Gevork. After retiring from the field at 60, Goar passed on her tradecraft to future generations of Soviet spies.

All this has the distinct whiff of the Cold War and brings to mind its chronicling by John le Carré, literature’s pre-eminent spy master. Le Carré would particularly relish Soviet ex-spy Mikhail Lyubimov, quoted by press agency AFP, saying that the Vartanians’ activities would remain secret because Russia would not want “to cause political scandals in the countries they worked”.

Deep dilemma

Le Carré is unafraid of stirring the pot, provoking outrage or even scandal. His work – one hesitates to call it fiction – has a steely underpinning of reality that forcibly reminds readers of the ethical and moral morass of the world. He has drawn a steady and principled arc from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, through the Smiley novels – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, The Secret Pilgrim and A Legacy of Spies – and continuing in one-off tales like The Looking Glass War, A Perfect Spy, The Russia House, The Night Manager, Our Game, The Constant Gardener and Absolute Friends

There is not a single Le Carré novel that does not have at its heart a deep dilemma, a defining moment of moral choice. Not for nothing did the great American writer Philip Roth describe A Perfect Spy as “the best English novel since the war”. Equally, The Guardian newspaper noted that “no other writer has charted – pitilessly for politicians but thrillingly for readers – the public and secret histories of his times”.

That latter quote adorns the back jacket of Le Carré’s new book, Agent Running in the Field. Ungainly it might sound, but it brings his work full circle because it was the title he wished to give to what was published as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the first of the great spy versus spy, Smiley (Britain) against Karla (USSR) novels.

The end of the Cold War did not bring with it the end of Le Carré’s inspiration. Nor did it sap his moral commitment – fervour, even – which is tangible and articulate as ever in Agent Running in the Field. What has sometimes changed is the enemy: in The Constant Gardener it is Big Pharma, the world’s pharmaceutical conglomerates; in Absolute Friends and A Legacy of Spies it is your own side that is out to get you.

‘Non-literary fiction’

Not wishing to go in for the ruinous practice of spoiler alerts, let’s leave detection of the enemy in Agent Running in the Field to a reading of the book. But it is important to dispel the notion that “spy stories” “espionage novels”, “spy thrillers” are a lesser brand of fiction. 

Self-appointed purveyors of “literary fiction” love to look down at all the “other” fictions, supposedly inferior: science fiction, fantasy, speculative fiction, alternative history, thrillers, horror, crime, romance, spy stories. Implicit is the notion that literary fiction is both more elevated and more “literary”. Tell that to HG Wells, Ursula le Guin, JG Ballard, Margaret Atwood, Stephen King, Mary Shelley, Michael Dibdin, Simenon, Emily Bronte, Len Deighton, Le Carré and countless other writers of “non-literary fiction”.

Early on in Agent Running in the Field, Le Carré offers readers a key to his work.

“Squash is slash and burn. Badminton is stealth, patience, speed and improbable recovery. It’s lying in wait to unleash your ambush while the shuttle describes its leisurely arc.”

Tinker, tailor, soldier, writer. Read him.

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