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From Sunday, 19 October 2014 through Sunday, 28 December 2014, I read A Perfect Spy by John le Carré (NY: Scribner [a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.], 2008 [copyright 1986; author introduction copyright 2000]; ISBN: 978-0-7434-5792-7; 600 pps.).
cover to A Perfect Spy by John le Carre


A Perfect Spy is an exhaustive and exhausting look at the titular character, Magnus Pym, a double agent for both the British secret service (MI6, or the British equivalent of the CIA) and the Czechoslovakian secret service; when Magnus absconds with a "burnbox" (a portable, fortified case designed to contain sensitive documents that can incinerate them with the press of a button) and goes to ground in parts unknown, his employers, both British and Czech, as well as the CIA and his wife, Mary, scramble to "walk the cat back," as the saying goes, to try to locate him, discover what he's done, and deduce what he intends to do. Magnus, for his part, attempts to probe his intentions through the act of writing his memoirs, which he frequently addresses to both his teenaged son, Tom, and his friend, mentor, and immediate superior in MI6, Jack Brotherhood (who had a sexual relationship with Mary before Magnus married her; Mary, who hails from a family with a long and distinguished career of military service, was at that time also employed by MI6 as part of the support staff). In the course of writing his memoirs, Magnus also recapitulates the career of his father, Rick, a skiver, spiv, failed politician and con artist extraordinaire, going back to Rick's adolescence, before Magnus was even a gleam in his father's lying eyes.

While A Perfect Spy (the title, much as with Mikhail Lermontov's A Hero of Our Time, is meant to be heavily, ostentatiously ironic) contains some very fine writing, as one may reasonably expect of a work by le Carré, its structure leaves a lot to be desired: alternating between "tight third person omniscient" (for the POVs of Jack and Mary, as well as the rather sketchy CIA liaison to MI6 in Vienna, Craig Lederer; "der Lederer" is German for "tanner," which may be significant: "skive" is a term used in leatherworking, as well as denoting the main activity of an Ally Sloper type) and Magnus' interminable memoir-cum-apologia, one cannot escape the feeling that A Perfect Spy is more about the novel's structure -- as well as le Carré's need to come to grips with his own con man father's (Ronnie Cornwell; John le Carré ["le Carré" is French for "square"] is the penname of David Cornwell) influence on his life -- than it is about its nominal subject. The constant interruption of any forward movement in the contemporary narrative by interpolations of Magnus' family history (which themselves don't unfold in chronological order) ultimately killed for me any involvement in or interest with the story or the main character. The fact that the novel takes place in the mid-1980s, during the waning days of the Cold War, also means that the stakes seem laughably minuscule, as does the revelation that Magnus is two-timing MI6 with arguably the most progressive of the Warsaw Pact member nations, Czechoslovakia.

Magnus' magnum opus shifts, jarringly, from first to third person, sometimes in the same sentence; he also alternately addresses his son and his boss/friend/mentor within the same paragraph, although it is suggested, at least in the early excerpts, that he initially intended to compose two different narratives for these two different people. This is probably meant to convey Magnus' confused and divided mental state, but all it really did, for me, was distance and flatten the narrative into irrelevance. (Possibly le Carré needed to distance himself from his memories of and discoveries about his father in order to write this book; his introduction to the edition that I read sheds a bit of light on this, but his statement that "writing A Perfect Spy is probably what a very wise shrink would have advised me to do anyway" is even more illuminating.) While parts of Magnus' memoir struck me as vaguely reminiscent in tone of Thackeray, I suspect that A Perfect Spy as a whole bears greater similarities to Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy; certainly A Perfect Spy could've -- and probably should've -- been subtitled "A Cock and Bull Story".


*Cross-posted to LibraryThing.



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