Even without context, John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy—a tale of a British secret agent who betrayed his country because he couldn’t unlearn the lessons taught to him by his conman father—would still be a remarkable book. But if you read the foreword to the revised edition, you’ll see that le Carré based the conman on his own father. And if you read about le Carré, you’ll find that he used to be a spy himself. The combination recasts the novel as a self-reflective meditation on how and why we break bad.
The story begins in the 1980s. Magnus Pym—the British spy and le Carré’s avatar—has disappeared following the death of his disreputable father Rick. Three countries’ worth of intelligence agencies begin looking for Magnus: the British, the Czechs, and the Americans (all of whom he’s been playing for fools). For a time, he’s able to elude them and write his confession in a series of long letters that take us back to his upbringing during and after World War II.
This unfolds as a narrative tangle. The cutbacks are sudden, and the characters’ inner monologues appear without adornment. (Most authors nowadays would italicize first-person thoughts. Le Carré presents them as plain text.) More confusingly, Magnus’s letters frequently toggle between first and third person while he’s talking about himself. The inconsistency is intentional, however. Magnus is showing us his many aspects, the younger possibilities that only later fused into the present version—the one he likes least. (And the one he most often refers to as “I” and “me.” The other identities are generally just “Pym.”)
Occasionally, Magnus addresses the intended recipients of his letters, which brings in second person. In a few passages, we get all three viewpoints within a few sentences. For example: “I remember asking what crowd you fought with, sir, expecting you to say ‘Fifth Airborne,’ or ‘Artists’ Rifles’ so that I could look suitably awed. Instead you went a bit gruff and said, ‘General List.’ I know now that you were exercising the double standard of diplomatic cover: you wanted it to cover you, but you also wanted Pym to see through it.” (“I” refers to Magnus in this section. “You” refers to his British spymaster. “Pym” also refers to Magnus.)
But once you get used to it, this all flows wonderfully. Le Carré’s prose is both elegant and affable. What he lays out isn’t a James Bond story; barely a shot is fired (although there is plenty of sex). The focus isn’t on the spycraft, either (although what’s here feels authentic—as it should—tricks of the trade from earlier eras). Instead, le Carré spends the bulk of the book chronicling Magnus’s relationship with his father and how it shaped him, giving him the tools to charm, deceive, and manipulate, as well as an insatiable need to please. These are the traits that made him an attractive agent to various intelligence agencies; these are also the traits that led him to cheat them.
Le Carré clearly isn’t a romantic about espionage—or his own childhood.
As I worked through A Perfect Spy, I couldn’t help wondering if the point-of-view shifts started off subconsciously. Did le Carré write “I” instead of Magnus, realize what he’d done, and decide to make it a device? (He includes a suggestive passage near the beginning when Magnus’s second wife recalls one of his attempts at a novel—another autobiographical overlap. “There was a Chapter Eight …” she admits. “Slipping from third to first person and staying there, whereas the [earlier chapters] were ‘he’…”)
Fortunately, le Carré didn’t go down the same road as Magnus. The author managed to transcend his nurture—and maybe his nature. He even seems to have his protagonist articulate this at one point: “Putting down his pen, Pym stared at what he had written, first in fear, then gradually in relief. Finally he laughed. ‘I didn’t break,’ he whispered. ‘I stayed above the fray.’”
The novel ends less hopefully. But that personal connection made A Perfect Spy an especially compelling read.