Master of intrigue John le Carré on his latest villain: Brexit

In conversation with John le Carré

Once, walking through an English garden might have given John le Carré refuge from the world of espionage and intrigue he's so often written about. Not anymore.

Here, said correspondent Mark Phillips, "you'd think the world was not so bad a place."

"You would think that, yes!" said le Carré. "And, of course, it's the kind of garden, in my imagination, where Brexit was born! A gentleman owns everything he beholds and sees this paradise about him and thinks, 'How can we let those bloody foreigners in?'" 

Le Carré is 88 now. And 25 novels, 10 films and six TV adaptations later – he has new villains: The people trying to take Britain out of the European Union.

"I'm talking about Brexit," he said. "I'm talking about the difference, which Americans also know very well, between patriotism and nationalism. A patriot can criticize his country, stay with it, and go through the democratic process; a nationalist needs enemies."

Le Carré's feelings about Brexit are well known: He's against it. He's joined street demonstrations demanding the chance to vote again in a new referendum, now that the potentially-damaging consequences of Brexit are better known. 

But the problem, he says, is bigger than that.

"I think to have abandoned our allies, effectively, in Europe, to have actually turned them through the rhetoric that's thrown around into enemies, that's something quite extraordinary."

And he's not shy about getting those opinions into his new book, "Agent Running in the Field."

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Viking Press

Phillips said, "The first reference to Brexit, I think, is described, 'absurdity,' I think, is the phrase you use."

"It was much ruder than that!" Le Carré laughed. "Well, let me just say, first of all, that always in my books, I've tried to live the passion of my time. And in this case, I felt very deeply – I continue to feel very deeply – that the British public is being bamboozled by people with private interests. So, to get that feeling, to invest the argument in characters rather than just stand on a soap box, that was my job."

That's always been Le Carré's job.  Times have changed since Phillips first met the author at his seaside home in England's wild West Country in the mid-1990s. The Cold War had been declared over. The books he had written there based on his own experience as a British spook – "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," "Smiley's People" and all the rest – seemed like old news. Several had been made into films and TV shows, and seemed like relics of another age. 

Le Carré was a one-man, spy-fiction industry back then. In 1996 he told Phillips, "Joseph Conrad wrote about the sea because he was born to the sea. I was recruited very early into the secret world. I would copy Conrad in that request; the secret world was my natural element, I was in it for those years and I understand its workings as he understands the sea."

From 1996: The secret world of John le Carré

But, even then, he saw that the future looked a lot like the past: "It doesn't matter what new circumstances occur. It's the same show running in the background. It's the same people running it. I mean, you look at the new so-called Russian security service, it's just the KGB in drag."

And the Russians are back in his latest book, making trouble again. 

Phillips asked, "Do you feel you've kind of come full circle? The first time we spoke was when history was allegedly ending. You were moving onto other stuff. And here you are again, talking about the same sort of things."

"Yeah, well, first of all, I never subscribed to the view that history had ended," he replied. "And, in fact, statistically, the size of intelligence services in every country has grown enormously since the end of the Cold War. It's the same game but played for different purposes and by different rules."

There's still plenty of history to go around. Le Carré has not mellowed with age, and American politics don't get an easy ride in his new book, either. He writes: 

"In Ed's world there was no dividing line between Brexit fanatics and Trump fanatics. Both were racist and xenophobic. Both worshiped at the same shrine of nostalgic imperialism."

John le Carré reads from "Agent Running in the Field"

Le Carré has tried to stop writing, and speaking out, but says he couldn't. When asked if there is yet another novel in him, he said, "Yes, there is very much another novel in me. And it gnaws away."

Another novel, and more. After the recent success of a TV version of "The Night Manager," and after the successful run of a new TV treatment of "The Little Drummer Girl," Le Carré is now working on more TV treatments for some of his early spy novels.

There's still a lot he wants to say.

Le Carré said, "Britain is famous – used to be – for common sense and centrist [ideas].  It's gone."

"So, what do you do?" asked Phillips.

"Well, agitate!" he replied. "I keep on writing. I'm 88. So, my range for the future is strictly limited."

"You'd better get cracking," Phillips said.

"I'd better get cracking!" he laughed. "I have no time. I have no time to die, either, but I suppose I'll have to."

"Not yet, let's say."

"Thanks!"

Listen to an excerpt from "Agent Running in the Field," read by the author:

      
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Story produced by Mark Hudspeth.