John le Carré’s requiem for a finished world: “The country he believed in was evaporating”
MADRID.- An English gentleman who drops by a new town bookstore and who strikes up friendship with its owner to the point of suggesting a community around the classics could be as endearing as he seems, except —beware!— in a novel of John le Carre. The old master of espionage novels, who died of pneumonia at the age of 89 13 months ago, did not abandon us to our fate but left many surprises behind. And the most important of them comes to light: Silverview Project (Planet) is his posthumous work, a true requiem for that British world that has gone off the rails. The novel -which will arrive in Argentine bookstores in March- holds clues to his disappointed thought and a conception of loyalty clinging to principles above any imposition. Like El Cid, Le Carré will continue to win wars after his death.
“It is a requiem for the intelligence service as he had described it until then,” says his youngest son, Nick Cornwell, by videoconference from London. “In all his novels there was always someone with integrity like Smiley who did what had to be done, capable of carrying the Holy Grail and taking the world forward in the midst of a catastrophe. And in this novel there is no one left. I think my father found that idea very difficult when he wrote it and that’s one of the reasons he kept it.”
Three years before he died, David Cornwell, whom we all know as John le Carré (1931-2020), he commissioned his son Nick to take charge of his works if anything remained unfinished. There are fragments, there are articles or material that are still under review, but the most complete and coherent thing that he left unpublished was this 2014 novel, kept almost like that luminous Holy Grail that only Smiley could bring to his altar. “He was about to submit it for publication when he finished it and for some reason he didn’t. Sometimes he spoke of taking it up again, of working on it more, like any writer. When I went to read it I was afraid that it would be bad but I found that it was perfect: complete, thoughtful, short like his first works, contained, focused on British hypocrisy and very close to A delicate truth which is the perfect distillation of his writing”, he says. The edition has been minimal because, as his son assures, “he ran the marathon and I gave him the final push to cross the finish line.” The result “is a Le Carré classic in every way”.
-Is it therefore a requiem for England?
-When he wrote it, it wasn’t so much a requiem as that music that sounds in a movie just before the character dies. In 2014 there were elections in which the opposite of what was expected happened, then came Brexit and there we continue, in our decline. It is a book that observes and recognizes the moment when everything begins to go wrong.
Espionage services were for John le Carré a metaphor for British society itself, says his son. And the aroma of disappointment that the novel draws from the gaze of that gentleman who frequents the bookstore and who – yes, you guessed it – is an old spy will be indelible. “The end of truth and integrity in the intelligence service here becomes an indictment of the UK.”
The (good) spies of Silverview Project they have lost faith in their country and in the intelligence service; and the book oozes that usual fight in Le Carré between loyalty to principles, to friends and lovers who have given everything, against loyalty to officials, to bureaucracy, to cold orders dictated so many times for convenience politics and dark interests. And that feeling that Le Carré captured in 2014 in these pages only grew and deepened at the same rate that the United Kingdom opted for Brexit and distance itself from the world. “The country he believed in – says Nick Cornwell – was evaporating.”
And that doesn’t mean he was nostalgic for the Cold War. He hated her for everything that was done wrong in the time that she knew how to reflect so well and, on the contrary, he harbored great hopes in the opportunity that opened at its end: he aspired then and believed possible a future of freedom, safe from totalitarianism and unilateralism, of great rapprochement with Europe and with solutions for the most vulnerable, describes Cornwell with great emotion in his tone. “All of his writing is about compassion, about community. Does that mean you lost faith? I don’t know, but that opportunity being missed fueled his anger and made his writing more ferocious.” What he was nostalgic about, what he regretted, is that the world did not take advantage of that opportunity. “He always looked to the future, he wanted a better future instead of a better past.”
“We have not changed the world”, reflects one of the old spies who star Silverview Project. “I think I would have been more useful in a youth club.” And that defeatism concentrated in the microcosm of a small town on the British coast that brings together all the evils of the world, as his son describes, is the flavor that the novel leaves on the palate.
Did you get the recognition you felt you deserved?
-I don’t think any author in the world believes that they have recognized him as he deserves. In the Anglo-Saxon world and especially in the United Kingdom, he was interpreted as a thriller author because he had the temerity to sell books. But he only had to travel and see himself abroad to be welcomed as an essential, literary writer, unique in reflecting on the Cold War and its consequences.
The book is also a book about death. That of Deborah, one of the protagonists, is a prescient portrait of that of John le Carré’s own wife, who died of cancer just two months after him. But after the reflections on the struggle, anger and fragility that the disease triggers, the curtain closes, reopens and the closest thing to immortality arrives. “It is impossible to know if he will be eternal, but as we discuss the Cold War, the 20th century and its consequences in the 21st century, references will have to be made to him because he captured that moment in a unique way,” says Nick. “His ability to spot stories that eventually become headlines was special, so I conclude yes: he will be there forever.” His great legacy, if Le Carré wanted to be remembered for anything, he says, is for compassion.
Cornwell, the fourth son of the author, faced the deaths of his father (in December due to pneumonia) and his mother (in February due to cancer) in full restrictions due to the pandemic and therefore does not forgive the inhabitant of Downing Street: “Yes, I am one of many that we couldn’t do what we wanted to do for our parents in their last days, while the prime minister drank wine in Downing Street. That’s why I’m angry with him.” The episode of Boris Johnson parties while the citizens suffered, it could well be another chapter of a book by Le Carré, but we will not see that one. In exchange, we will read Silverview Project.