The spy who came in from the cold . . . to write novels
Olga Craig talks to John le Carré before the publication of his new novel, Our Kind of Traitor
For David Cornwell it was a simple, clear-cut, matter of morals. No deliberation needed. And so he politely declined a rendezvous with Kim Philby, possibly the world's best-known double agent, and likely the man who ended Cornwell's own career as a British agent for both MI5 and MI6.
"I couldn't possibly have shook his hand," he shudders. "It was drenched in blood. It would have been repulsive. Lord knows how many agents Philby betrayed. They were tortured in terrible ways." One appreciates his point.
And Cornwell, better known as spy novelist John le Carré, is a man with a well-honed moral mantra. For him it was the right and proper thing to do. But for le Carré, his alter ego, surely the master espionage author was tempted by the literary riches on offer? The opportunity to trawl the mind of the traitor who defected to the Soviet Union in the Sixties when he was outed as the treacherous ringleader of the infamous 'Cambridge Five' spy circle that included Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross?
"Nope," he says, shaking his head vigorously. "Because of the country he betrayed. The people he betrayed. I could not have done it. Astonishingly, I think he hoped I might write his biography. It's the ludicrous sort of fantasy he would have entertained. A while later Phil Knightley, who did write it, phoned me and said Philby wanted to know why I wouldn't meet him.
"Did I know something about him that I disliked? I told him: 'What, apart from the incidental little matters of those he sent to their deaths.' I know it has never been proven that he betrayed the Albanian Operation when a whole bunch of British agents trained by SIS (Secret Intelligence Service) were dropped into Albania in the crazy days of King Zog. But he was in charge of the operation. And they went to terrible deaths. And don't forget Philby could easily have become head of the SIS."
The opportunity for an encounter with Philby came in the late Eighties, before the fall of the Berlin Wall and the eventual collapse of communism. Cornwell had been denied entry to the Soviet Union for years. Hardly surprising since his spy novels were required reading for the KGB. But when Raisa Gorbachev, wife of the Soviet leader Mikhail, intervened, he was granted a visa -- much to the KGB's fury -- and allowed to visit Moscow.
"It was ridiculous," he says, rolling his eyes. "Every time I left my hotel room it was turned over. I was followed everywhere." One night, at a party, he was approached by a shady figure, one of Philby's minders. "He told me he wanted me to meet a great admirer of mine, Mr Philby. It was a horrific suggestion. I told him I was meeting the British ambassador next. I couldn't see the Queen's ambassador and then see the Queen's traitor."
It was an honourable, moral decision. Which is somewhat surprising since Cornwell's novels are peppered with moral ambiguity. Not for him the flashy Fleming world of James Bond with its shaken-not-stirred sophisticates who always happen to have the latest gadgetry tucked in the inside pocket of their immaculate tuxedos.
Cornwell's spies are the everyday folk in impossible positions. Those whom one would least suspect. Spies, according to Alec Leamas, a central character in his first international bestseller, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, are: ". . . squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, sadists and drunkards".
Since Cornwell was a successful spy himself, is the description apt? He shifts, a little uncomfortably, in his seat. "It is my writing dilemma," he concedes. "The world of spying is my genre. My struggle is to demystify, to de-romanticise the spook world, but at the same time harness it as a good story. As someone once said, the definition of genius -- not that I'm a genius -- is to have two conflicting opinions about any one subject and that's what I do all the time. Some call it ambiguity. I call it lack of resolution."
Cornwell, now 79, allows himself a modest smile. He is, actually, an extremely modest man. With his latest book, his 22nd, Our Kind of Traitor, about to be published, his place in posterity is assured. Set amid the backdrop of the credit crunch, it is a masterly yarn of a young London couple who, on holiday in Antigua, meet a rich, charismatic Russian millionaire called Dima, who owns a peninsula, wears a diamond-encrusted watch, has a tattoo on the knuckle of his right hand and wants a game of tennis. And he wants a lot more besides.
The novel is a tale of greed and corruption pacing back and forth from the Arctic hells of the Gulag archipelago to a Swiss alpine house nestling in the shadow of the north face of the Eiger.
"Completing a book, it's a little like having a baby," Cornwell says. "There's a feeling of relief and satisfaction when you get to the end. A feeling that you have brought your family, your characters, home. Then a sort of post-natal depression and then, very quickly, the horizon of a new book. The consolation that next time I will do it better."
At the moment, five of Cornwell's novels are being prepared for the big screen. Brad Pitt has an option for Night Manager and Gary Oldman and Colin Firth will star in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Last question, I tell him. Who would he like to see appear in Our Kind of Traitor? "Unknowns," he says succinctly. "Are we done? Good. Let's have lunch."
Our Kind of Traitor is published on September 16 and will be reviewed here next Saturday by John Boland