There’s a certain irony to the death of John le Carré falling on the same day that a massive Russian hack of US government computers is revealed.
If there’s one thing le Carré made abundantly clear over half a century of exceptional writing, it was that secrets are hardly worth the paper — or the pixels — they’re written on.
We’ll need to get used to the idea that our national secrets are deeply compromised. Trump has surely passed any number on to Putin, more through his unsecured phone and willful nonchalance than through actual villainy — though villainy can’t be ruled out. Even so, it’s far from clear that the Russians didn’t have those secrets already.
But le Carré, in handing us the history of the Cold War and its aftermath in deft fictional form, showed us that disruptive intelligence hacks — both high tech and low — are nothing new.
Not that real damage isn’t done. Not that there aren’t real consequences — political, financial, economic, reputational, or all of the above. And not that real human beings don’t get painfully interrogated and occasionally executed. It’s just that somehow, in spite of all these spilled secrets, the world moves on.
Secrets do get exposed, just as they always have. Yet you can’t read le Carré’s books and not get the sense that it’s all a rather stupid game, hardly worth the huge trouble and expense that go into it. In a world that seems increasingly built around dis- and mis-information, what role do secrets play, anyway? The simple possession of an enemy’s secret is no guarantee that it’s believable.
I would go further and say that a secret, like any other piece of information these days, can be true, not true, or both at once — based on who’s spinning and who’s being spun. Perception and reality are now so hopelessly tangled, alternative facts undermine the whole concept of a secret.
Yes, I know I’m being glib. Yes, every nation acquires and exploits its secrets. But le Carré, a knowing insider, really does make you wonder why.
Starting with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the novel that rocketed him to stardom, le Carré’s sly portrayals of spies, their secrets, and their betrayals constantly remind us that the very notion of good guys and bad guys is deeply suspect. He made us familiar, even comfortable, with the moral ambiguity of nations, and with the fatuousness of the people representing them — both above and below the radar.
And that was long before Trump single-handedly turned this country into the bad guy — falling in love with dictators, undermining our diplomacy, and taking a blow torch to crucial alliances and treaties that had served us for seventy-five years.
“It sounds like a le Carré novel” has become a familiar trope in global political punditry. But while Trump’s story is arguably too bizarre for fiction, le Carré would have been more qualified than most to tell it.
Because famously, David Cornwell (his real name), was the son of a notorious English con man, Ronnie Cornwell. The kind of guy who sweet-talks widows out of their clothes and their money.
Ronnie was a flamboyant charmer, with a fawning entourage and a sociopath’s ability to manipulate without conscience or remorse. An astute but thoroughly fraudulent businessman, he brilliantly took on all the airs and trappings of a celebrity — he once even ran for Parliament — right up until the bills came due. Or rather overdue. Sound familiar?
In 1986, le Carré gave Ronnie a fictional alter-ego and made him the star of a major novel: A Perfect Spy. I recently re-read it, hoping for some new insight into what people like Trump are made of.
The parallels are many and striking. We see that the career con man is an incorrigible narcissist. That everything and everybody revolves around him. That he has the charm of a natural seducer and the bite of a viper. That he’s a master corrupter, who can cajole you into stealing for him, and convince you it’s a privilege to go to prison in his place. Think Michael Cohen.
In this regard, Trump is a prodigy. He has reached the apotheosis of con artistry, and I’ve long waited for le Carré to weigh in on him publicly. He, of all people, would know a scammer when he saw one. Too late now.
But if his father were still alive, he would surely look on in envy at the spectacle of Trump’s major scams, most of which happen in plain sight, are exposed in great detail, and yet somehow still work like a charm. His latest — built on the absurd proposition that the election was stolen — has allowed him to collect over $200 million from a significant percentage of his seventy million dupes. This has to be some kind of record.
Of course, that’s just money. Trump’s real con has been in the way he uses his perverse brand of charisma to lead those seventy million dupes by the nose, absolutely convincing them that up is down, that reality is for suckers, and that everyone but Trump himself is a transparent liar. Ronnie would be in awe.
Unfortunately for Trump, as it was for Ronnie, the bill eventually does come due. Ronnie was in and out of prison cells in six countries, despite his skill at getting people to take the fall for him. One can’t help but feel the same is in store for Trump.
Having been brought up in an atmosphere of constant deceit and larceny, le Carré often said, in so many words, that he was destined from birth to intimately understand betrayal, and the damage it leaves. It’s an overriding theme of his work.
I have therefore no doubt that he knew things about Trump that Trump himself doesn’t know. Too bad he never got around to telling us.
But after half a century spent brilliantly probing the murky world of national secrets and international treacheries, we can’t say he didn’t warn us.
P.S. Some writers are known for their plotting, some for their characters, some for their dialogue. John le Carré was a master of all three, and then some. For fifty years I have been in awe of his skills, and I shall miss him as much as anyone I’ve never met. I understand he is an acquired taste and not an easy read. But if you want to experience the pure joy of language, joined to deeply held beliefs on an amazing range of issues, you can do no better than his entire body of work. If you’ve never read the Karla Trilogy, starting with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, you’re in for a treat. If you must rely on visual media, skip the vapid remake, and go for the original six-part BBC series with Alec Guiness as George Smiley. It’s dark but beautiful.