The Cowardice Of John Le Carré

As the BBC version of The Night Manager shows, the novelist has become his own tribute band

Nick Cohen

The approval of former MI6 agent John le Carré has not guaranteed the authenticity of the BBC’s dramatisation of The Night Manager. Those who know about the Middle East could barely make it through the first episode.

My colleague Peter Beaumont, the Guardian’s Jerusalem correspondent, was in Tahrir Square during the revolution. He turned off The Night Manager when a murderous member of the Mubarak oligarchy ordered an improbably large assortment of weapons from a villainous English arms dealer. Mubarak had no shortage of weapons in 2011; he just could not persuade his forces to use them. The notion that his cronies would be trying to buy more rather than trying to persuade the army to fight comes from a definition of “realism” so capacious it includes Eurofighters on sale on the black market, and governments so unconcerned by weapons proliferation that they keep their inspectorates in cold, understaffed offices.

I shouldn’t have been surprised. Le Carré’s post-Cold-War politics are best described as more Pilgerish than Pilger. Connoisseurs of his public statements can tick every space on the bingo card. Le Carré believes that corporations brainwash the bovine masses (check) on behalf of the imperial American hegemon (check) which is itself controlled by a conspiracy of right-wingers (check) who are pulling our puppet strings at the behest of — guess who? — the Jews (full house!). Or as le Carré explained, the neoconservatives are “appointing the state of Israel as the purpose of all Middle Eastern and practically all global policy”.

Then there is the self-pity, that most deplorable affectation of Western intellectuals, who have never once faced the smallest threat of persecution or punishment for their writing. At one point during the last decade, le Carré compared himself to the German-Jewish diarist Victor Klemperer, who miraculously survived life under the Nazis. Liberals of a certain age remember that when the Ayatollah Khomeini’s assassins imitated the Nazis and threatened Salman Rushdie’s life the Klemperer de nos jours opined that Rushdie had brought death on himself by insulting the great religion of Islam.

Rushdie once told me that he did not think  le Carré scrabbled for excuses for those who would murder his fellow writers because he was a supporter of religious totalitarianism. Rather, he could not forgive Rushdie for writing an unfavourable review of The Tailor of Panama in which he said le Carré could not create convincing female characters. I am not sure this explanation helps le Carré, and he still cannot create convincing female characters.

After writing his three great novels — The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Perfect Spy — it is easy to agree with the conclusion of Private Eye’s critic, who said le Carré had become “his own tribute band”. You know now how his books will go. There is a decent Englishman. He comes across skulduggery. He is persuaded to fight it by an honest spy, who teaches him tradecraft, but instead finds he must fight Western corporations and governments whose cynicism knows no limits. In the case of The Night Manager, the reason, of course, why the British government is unconcerned by illegal weapons sales is that MI6 is in the pay of the villainous arms dealer.

It ought to be a stale piece of agitprop. It isn’t, because the BBC’s drama department has emerged from its torpor and is now offering excellent productions, most notably War and Peace and the superb Happy Valley. For the dramatisation of The Night Manager, it hired a cast so good no script could defeat — Olivia Colman, Hugh Laurie, Tom Hollander and Tom Hiddleston — and found the novel’s strengths.

I can describe the faults of the ideology of the 21st century pseudo-Left: its lack of concern for the victims of dictatorship; its indulgence of clerical fascism; its occidentalist conviction that the West is the only enemy worth fighting. But le Carré is a novelist, not a political theorist. If you accept his premises, and after Tony Blair’s refusal to argue with Washington about Iraq they are easy to accept, you enter a convincing fictional world.

Le Carré has the vices of the old conservative British establishment, and not just in his Jew obsession. He resents the American empire usurping British power and leaving us as its poodle, and engages in a quasi-colonial denial of the autonomy of the peoples of the poor world. But he also has the old establishment’s virtues, most notably its ability to appeal to a vision of a better England which the Left can rarely match.

In The Night Manager, an honest spy realises how deeply the bribes of the illegal arms and drug traders have penetrated government and the City:

For Goodhew it was as if the very pageantry of England was dying before his eyes. Dragging himself homeward in the small hours, he would pause to stare feverishly and wonder whether the daily stories of police violence and corruption were true after all, not the invention of journalists and malcontents. Entering his club, he would spot an eminent banker or stockbroker of his acquaintance and instead of flapping a hand at them in a cheery greeting as he would have done three months ago — would study them from under lowered brows across the dining room, asking them in his mind: Are you another of them? Are you? Are you?

You may object that no one has spoken like this for 30 years (“the very pageantry of England”). But you cannot deny that it is well said. Asking if le Carré’s world is realistic is as pointless as asking if Middle Earth or Narnia is realistic. If you decide to cross its borders, it works.

The sadness of it all is that ever since the attempt to murder Salman Rushdie we have been engaged in intelligence and real wars. Yet as far as fiction is concerned, the enemy might as well not exist. Hundreds, probably thousands, of writers have taken le Carré’s road, and explained it away by describing the evils of the West and the cliques in the CIA and MI6. Whatever truths they utter, I cannot escape the feeling that they are cowards.

But what would happen to le Carré and the BBC if they took on more dangerous targets than MI6 and the CIA? They can deny that they self-censor all they want, but everyone knows they would be haunted by the fear that the heirs of the men who wanted to murder Rushdie might try to murder them too.

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