In the years since the start of the Cold War, the spy thriller has emerged as a consistently popular literary genre, with the elaborate exploits of Ian Fleming’s James Bond setting the tone for espionage novels of the 1960’s and Robert Ludlum’s tales of international conspiracies regularly topping the best-seller lists of the 1970’s and 1980’s. The novels of John le Carré, however, stand apart from the rest of the genre, defying classification as mere spy thrillers through their author’s insistence on plot as a natural outgrowth of character development. For le Carré, tales of espionage serve primarily as a setting for explorations of the human psyche, and the key factor in each of his novels is not the mechanics of betrayal but what Graham Greene has called “the human factor”—those quirks of character and background that can never be discounted in matters of individual behavior.
In le Carré’s novels, the emphasis is always on the traitor rather than on the secret he betrays, and disloyalty to one’s country is often seen as an extension of smaller personal betrayals. Friend betrays friend, wife betrays husband, parent betrays child, forming a complicated pattern of which treason is only one thread. For Magnus Pym, the central figure in A Perfect Spy, treason is an action that seems the logical conclusion of a childhood built entirely upon artifice and dissemblance. The son of a charming confidence man, Pym is a character bereft of a moral center, willing from an early age to adopt any stance that will win favor with his companion of the moment. It is an upbringing that prepares him well for the life of a spy and a heritage that makes his further step into the role of a double agent not only probable but also almost inevitable. The book’s title is ironic; Pym is, indeed, a “perfect spy,” a skilled liar able to disguise his true thoughts beneath a carefully controlled façade. This ideal agent, however, is a dangerously imperfect man, incapable of genuine loyalty and driven by personal demons that even his wife barely suspects. In le Carré’s world, espionage is not a glamorous game for superspies but, rather, a shadowy, tortured excursion into a realm where flawed men and women become players and pawns while government secrets hang in the balance.
A Perfect Spy unfolds in a fragmented, kaleidoscopic fashion, skipping back and forth in time and location and weaving together several story lines as Pym’s history emerges. The book’s starting point is Pym’s arrival in a small coastal town in England where he has long kept a secret room at a boardinghouse. His father, Rick Pym, has died, and Magnus has gone into hiding, freed at last from the burden of his past and determined to write his life’s story in an attempt to explain his actions to his own son, Tom. His disappearance sends not only the British and the American intelligence organizations into a frenzied search for the missing agent—and possible defector—but also Pym’s friend and immediate superior, Jack Brotherhood, who begins his own hunt for the man he recruited and trained, while Mary Pym tries to carry on as she sees her world falling to pieces around her in the wake of her husband’s behavior. The novel’s action draws these strands tighter and tighter around Pym, all the while intercutting them with long passages from his writings.
Each of these plot lines has its own particular tone and atmosphere, although all are aspects of Pym’s convoluted world. The scenes in the boardinghouse and Pym’s touching, solicitous relationship with his landlady, the elderly Miss Dubber, convey a sense of normalcy that has been absent from the rest of his life. The damp, chilly weather, the slightly shabby, utterly unremarkable lodgings, and Miss Dubber herself—simple, trusting, and deeply fond of her star boarder—are all reflections of the England that exists largely unaware of the undercover dealings being performed in the name of national security. This is Pym’s refuge, the place where he is not Magnus Pym, double agent, but Mr. Canterbury, a hardworking government official.
The narrative tone set in the intelligence agencies’ search for Pym is markedly different from that in which the placid ordinariness of Miss Dubber’s quiet house is rendered. The Americans and the British—supposed allies in Cold War strategy—quickly display their mistrust of one another, with the British attempting to cover up Pym’s disappearance and the Americans relishing the mounting evidence supporting something they had already suspected. The British agents, headed by Jack Brotherhood, who descend on Mary’s home in Vienna are unfailingly courteous as they sift through the family’s belongings, treating Mary—herself a former agent and at one time Jack’s lover—with a show of casual friendship that belies the steely rein they have clamped on her activities. The cynicism, the lies, and the constant tension between appearances and the reality they mask paint a telling picture of the world within which Pym has operated as an adult; a world for which his childhood has so effectively prepared him.
Magnus Pym’s massive journal lies at the heart of the novel’s complex story and from it emerges a portrait of the protagonist that begins in his earliest years and takes him forward to his disappearance to the boardinghouse. The tone of Pym’s writing is ironic, expansive, sometimes rambling and impressionistic, sometimes laced with flashes of bitter wit, and always underlaid with a hint of panic and anxiety as Magnus struggles to maintain a foothold on the shifting sands of his childhood. These sections of the book are said by le Carré to be based on his own troubled...
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