By John le Carre
In many ways, John le Carre’s swansong, Silverview, is an affirmation of his brilliance as one of the last great bastions of the classic spy novel.
Born David Cornwell, Le Carre’s started writing in 1961, whilst working at MI5 — the United Kingdom’s domestic-focused intelligence agency. He is the only novelist to have worked for both MI5 and MI6 (Britain’s foreign intelligence agency).
Under a pseudonym, he presented the world of spies as it probably was: insulated, treacherous and hardly ever black-and-white. His spy novels stripped away the glamour and the overly simplistic morality of Ian Fleming’s world of James Bond.
John le Carre's last book, about various kinds of betrayals, is a reminder of the late author's position as one of the greatest writers of spy novels
Le Carre redirected the spy genre towards a more realistic moral greyness. Not just fast-paced adventures, his novels are deeply insightful glances into the world we live in, and what we believe in and stand for. Mexican novelist and political activist, Paco Ignacio Taibo II, has stated: “The grace of Le Carre’s style lies not in great anecdotes, but in the journey through a human landscape peopled by agents addicted to the love of adrenaline or danger … In doing so, he creates a masterful portrait of the British Empire’s high bureaucracy, made up mostly of moronic or pedantic (or both at the same time) bureaucrats.”
In Silverview, Le Carre’s writing is, as always, judicious. Every detail has a purpose and the narrative is precise. Instead of just one protagonist, the story builds on the back of decisions and actions taken by each of the interconnected characters.
Edward Avon lives in relative obscurity, caring for his terminally ill wife, Deborah. He is a former agent for the British secret service, she is a noted Arabist who was also a prominent member of the British intelligence. They live apparently quiet lives in their manor home, Silverview.
But, as with all Le Carre novels, nothing remains placid for too long. Ripples from Edward’s career as a “spook”, and its end under foggy circumstances years ago, reach Stewart Proctor, the head of domestic intelligence. In order to assess a potentially dangerous situation, Proctor decides to piece together Edward’s life as a spy, and the course of events that followed in its wake.
Meanwhile, young Julian Lawndsley has exchanged his fast-paced life as a banker in the City for the quiet existence of running a bookshop in Edward’s small town. The charming former intelligence agent had known Julian’s father — a firebrand preacher who eventually grew disenchanted with religion and subsequently fell from grace.
Edward has a passion for the literary world and sees potential in Julian’s bookshop. He’d like to convert it into a literary haven. This, coupled with his empathy for Julian’s complicated relationship with his father, helps them connect instantaneously. Edward proceeds to make himself a significant part of Julian’s everyday life and it doesn’t take long for readers to witness the birth of a master-novice relationship between the two. Le Carre’s personal experience with wayward fathers plays a strong part in setting the tone of this connection.
Besides being naturally affable, Edward is adept at drawing out information without his subject ever realising — a skill he had mastered as a spook. Julian, meanwhile, feels a sense of duty towards Edward, much like a son would. However, Julian is not naïve; he knows Edward isn’t exactly who he thinks he is, and this absorbing mystery pulls Julian closer to the older man.
Le Carre is known for complex plotlines hidden within seemingly simple narratives and Silverview does not disappoint. Proctor’s investigation into Edward’s life is fascinating: fleeing from his Nazi father leads him towards a fervent hatred for fascism. He embraces communism in his youth, only to later grow disillusioned. Being recruited into the British secret service is perhaps where he finally finds a sense of purpose.
However, following the Bosnian genocide of the mid-1990s, Edward is again thrown into the vortex of his conscience, as his morality rushes to catch up to him: “a radical’s a radical. Doesn’t matter whether he’s an ex-Communist or an ex anything else. He’s the same chap. You don’t change your reasoning because your conclusion’s changed. Human nature.”
In trying to understand Edward, Proctor visits fellow spies Philip and Joan who were once the service’s “golden couple.” Here, with his extraordinary eye for detail, Le Carre explains the circumstances of the Bosnian conflict in an unpretentious, pragmatic chat among the three semi-retired spies, as Philip resignedly confesses to Proctor: “We didn’t do much to alter the course of human history, did we? … As one old spy to another, I would have been of more use running a boys’ club.”
It’s a solemn moment in the book, reflecting Le Carre’s personal views on how secret services often exist in hyper-insulated environments and can create more harm than good. In a 2010 interview with the news outlet ‘Democracy Now’, the novelist had said: “It’s very easy inside an intelligence service to develop a capsule mentality. You live inside the bubble. The one thing you begin to lose is common sense, your sense of balance.”
It will be prudent to mention here that Le Carre had always been vocal in condemning the Iraq invasion during the George W. Bush-Tony Blair era, a time when false information was disseminated by the British and American secret services.
As Proctor continues his investigation, the reader becomes privy to Edward’s belief system and the strong hold that his conscience has upon him. Edward is a man of action and age or station in life do not cause any hindrance as he continues to follow his moral compass.
Julian is enthralled by the mysterious Edward, but nothing can prepare him for the eventual revelation of who the man truly is. This is where Le Carre’s brilliance lies. The narrative is so well-knit that it takes the reader by surprise. Every word holds meaning and consequence as this spy thriller becomes an insight into human nature.
Proctor’s detailed investigation starts reading like a rap sheet of the many failures of British intelligence and how it is often innocence that becomes collateral damage. His black-and-white approach towards his job that has blurred into holy duty gives him a sense of carte blanche, as long as the “damage” is curtailed.
As for Edward, his continuous struggle between duty and his conscience, while trying to align the two, causes him to burn with a feeling of righteous indignation that fuels a desire to right past wrongs at any cost. Julian’s sense of loyalty towards his friend overcomes his reservations, as he deep dives into the world of cloak-and-dagger, finding himself running secret errands for Edward.
Proctor’s investigation of Edward’s past and Julian’s present friendship with him are two different threads that converge at one fateful incident where the veil is lifted and readers are able to understand what it is to have a sense of duty to oneself and one’s work. Le Carre uses Edward’s inner struggle to raise questions on morality and loyalty, as he realises that he cannot escape for long and hence justifies his future course of action, with Proctor in hot pursuit.
Once, in an interview, Le Carre said: “I think the first process for me, of writing, is making order out of chaos.” That is precisely what he has achieved in his books. Silverview is a deeply nuanced novel with a multi-layered plot. It is a search for the truth hidden in the past, an effort to create order. It goes far beyond the story and sounds eerily familiar to the struggles we face internally, living in an increasingly polarised world. A discourse between public duty and private morals, it reads like a cautionary tale, warning the reader to find balance.
Years of writing and experiencing the world and its duplicity gave Le Carre a unique insight into what fuels human nature. He knows his characters and their motivations well. He also explains, quite well, how betrayal of oneself can be as bad, perhaps even worse, than the betrayal of a perceived idea or duty. The book’s two narratives mirror the internal struggles we face as global citizens.
Le Carre cautions us of the hyperbole of those who claim to be in the know, versus the many who are often held hostage to vague declarations of ‘security threats’ and enemies created out of snuff and smoke. With his demise, the literary world has lost a giant who walked amongst pygmies and never shied away from raising his voice against the many injustices suffered by the world.
The reviewer is a freelance writer with a background in law and literature. She tweets @shehryarsahar
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, April 24th, 2022