In John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy, narrative technique, theme, and plot are inextricably related. At the novel’s beginning, Magnus Pym, under the name of Mr. Canterbury, has retreated to a rooming house on the English coast in order to write, though one does not know until the novel’s end how desperate a retreat this is. For years, Magnus has been wanting to retire from his work in British espionage and the diplomatic post that is his cover, and write a novel. His father’s death gives him an unexpected leave of absence and also the impetus to write not the novel but a memoir for his son, Tom, though he occasionally addresses his wife, Mary, and his controller, Jack Brotherhood, as well. In explaining his own life to Tom, Magnus hopes to free, if not himself, then at least Tom, from the haunting and dominating presence of Magnus’ own father, and presumably to free Tom from his, Magnus’, own shadow as well.
As the narrative constantly shifts in time and in point of view, from Magnus’ first-person account of his life to the third-person narration as the British and their American counterparts track Magnus to his hiding place, more and more facets of Magnus’ life and character are revealed. Magnus begins his narrative with an account of his upbringing, that of “a perfect spy.” His father, Richard Thomas Pym, known to all as Rick, is a charming con man who has married a woman who is above his station, Dorothy, sister of Sir Makepeace Watermaster. Pym grows up tossed back and forth between the luxurious, freewheeling, and mysterious life his father leads, with a series of “mothers,” and the austere home of Sir Makepeace Watermaster and the even more austere public school. Of the “mothers,” Annie Lippschitz, “Lippsie,” a German-Jewish refugee, is the person to whom he is most attached and who most influences him. Lippsie teaches him German, all he knows about art and culture as a boy, and even handwriting; all of his life, his handwriting retains traces of German script. Magnus has, he speculates, a German soul, the “German need to feel incomplete.” Survival in Rick’s household, and in those of his mother’s relatives, depends on his learning all sorts of deceptions and subterfuges and inventing all sorts of different backgrounds for himself, explanations of what his father does for a living. People and situations are often not what they seem to be, and Magnus learns suspicion and reticence the hard way.
Stranded in Switzerland, “the spiritual home of natural spies,” where he has gone on his first “clandestine assignment” as the front man for a confidence game of his father which fails, Magnus manages to survive, thanks to his far-from-perfect...
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