Book review: “A Perfect Spy” by John Le Carre

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Book review: “A Perfect Spy” by John Le Carre

I am surprised that, having finished John Le Carre’s A Perfect Spy a few days ago, the image of Rick Pym that remains in my mind is this one:

…Rick turned away to bestow a resigned smile on his subjects feasting around him. Then with his good hand he lightly pinged the edge of his Drambuie glass to indicate that he required another nice touch. Just as, by unlacing his shoes, he used to let it be known that somebody should fetch his bedroom slippers. Or by rolling on his back, after a lengthy banquet, and spreading his knees, he declared a carnal appetite.

Rick is a con man extraordinaire, and I would have thought that my mind’s eye would see him running a con. There are certainly many, many, many examples of that in this novel.

lecarre - perfect spyBy the way, this is a novel about a spy — Rick’s son Magnus, the “perfect spy” of the title — but it’s not a spy novel. Le Carre, who has always written of espionage with high literary skill, essentially leaves the reservation with this 1986 book.

This is the story of the wracked, warped, false, deep, rending, manipulative, counterfeit lives and relationship of Rick and Magnus. The spy stuff is just the setting. There’s something Faulknerian going on here — and, at the same time, I sincerely believe that any fan of chick lit would resonate with the parent-child horror-show on display.

Deep elemental nature

So why isn’t the image that comes to my mind some interaction of Rick and Magnus?

I think it’s the deep elemental nature of what Rick does — pinging his glass, unlacing his shoes, spreading knees — that gets me, and seems to get to the heart of this story.

These actions deal with bodily urges. They have nothing to do with ideas. Nor do they involve emotions. For instance, there’s no hint of love in the gross indication of his “carnal appetite.”

This is the level at which Rick operates. And, I suspect, it’s why he’s so successful as a con man. He is unencumbered by feelings for other people or morals or ethics. Which isn’t to say that he’s not highly intelligent.

Indeed, without such social restraints, he’s able to give free rein to his sly, brassy, even wacky schemes. They don’t have to be brilliant. None is. They’re just so ballsy and amoral that normal people — i.e., you and me, people who follow society’s rules — are woefully over-matched.

“Neverwozzers”

Also, Rick does his pinging, unlacing and spreading amid his company of aiders, abettors, “Lovelies,” hangers-on and, to borrow a term used for all of Rick’s scam-related race horses, “neverwozzers.”

He doesn’t know the meaning of intimacy or vulnerability. He creates a world in which he is at the center or, better put, on top. In control. Untouchable. His circle of Dickensian characters prop him up and provide a buffer between him and the rest of existence.

There’s a fortress mentality at the core of the life of Rick and his company — a moveable fortress, if that makes any sense. He and his shady crew establish a headquarters, but are always ready to — and expect to — decamp at a moment’s notice.

Flaw

Magnus is much like his father — but, through the odd quirks of an odd upbringing, he has developed the ability to feel. This leads him to a friendship with a man named Axel and a love with a wife named Mary.

It is also his fatal flaw.

His emotions are at constant war with the elemental, con-man genes that he’s inherited from Rick.

No wonder, then, that, just a page away from Rick’s pinging, unlacing and spreading description, Le Carre details Magnus’s reactions to being in Yugoslavia on his first real spying mission:

The silent, unlit country that at first sight appeared so threatening to him becomes a secret womb where he can hide himself, rather than a place of dread….

His solitary nights in unpeopled provincial towns, where at first the yapping of a dog had been enough to bring him sweating to his window, now inspire him with a sense of protection. The air of universal oppression that hangs over the entire country enfolds him in its mysterious embrace. Not even the prison wall of his public school had given him such a sense of security. On car and train rides through river valleys, over hills capped by Bohemian castles, he drifts through realms of such inner contentment that the very cattle seem to be his friends.

“The very cattle”

Magnus is the perfect spy.

Where others find danger, he experiences “a secret womb.” Where others live in fear, he feels “a sense of protection” and a “mysterious embrace” and “a sense of security.” This isn’t a landscape of tension and dread. “The very cattle seem to be his friends.”

Here, on his mission, under cover, Magnus is free.

Alas, as with Rick, the real world intrudes. And, as the book opens, Magnus disappears off the grid.

His British spymasters are looking for him. So are their American allies. So is an Eastern bloc network.

He is alone in his own private safe house, spending his time writing the story of his wracked, warped, false, deep, rending, manipulative, counterfeit life.

Rick always thought he could out-run his pursuers. Magnus, the reader understands, has no such hope.

Patrick T. Reardon
7.5.13

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