John Le Carré Fears For The Future In 'Agent Running In The Field'

Oct 19, 2019
Originally published on October 19, 2019 11:08 am

Hate to disappoint, but John le Carré doesn't have any top-secret spy intel. "People approach me thinking I know amazing inside secrets. I truly don't," he says.

Le Carré's spy days are long behind him. Early in his writing career he worked for the British intelligence services MI5 and MI6. Drawing on that experience, le Carré — a pen name for David Cornwell — has spent more than 50 years writing some of the world's most acclaimed espionage novels, including The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Constant Gardner, and others.

His latest, Agent Running in the Field, tells the story of Nat, a veteran agent runner who returns home to London for one last posting — and to reclaim his championship at his old badminton club. A young man named Ed introduces himself and asks for a game. Before the story plays out, Nat and Ed find their secrets intertwined.

The novel is filled with timely references to Trump, Russia, Brexit and other topics of real-world international intrigue. Le Carré says that at a time when daily headlines compete with his thrillers, his approach is "to personalize everything. ... If I'm angry, I invest that in characters and I give them a motivation that expresses that anger," he says.


Interview Highlights

On his own feelings about badminton

I love it. I played it when I was young and ... it does have something rather beautiful about it. It's a very subtle game. It's rather quiet by comparison with squash. And it becomes suddenly extremely fast. ... Quite eccentric people play it — and I wanted that eccentricity, too.

On characters in the novel seeing Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump as two sides of the same coin

My characters articulate that suspicion. I don't think you should invest it directly in me. But I think that the appetite for superpower in both cases — for oligarchy, the dismissal of the truth, the contempt, actually, for the electorate and for the democratic system — that's common to both of them.

On using spy stories as a "vehicle"

I'm not writing about the secret services — I'm writing about England and Britain now, and the problems in Europe. ... For me, that intelligence experience that I had, that formative time in my life, has simply become a vehicle, a stage, a theater, that I use to express other things. The stories are engaging — people like spy stories, I like writing spy stories. But at the moment, with Britain as it is, if I had been in the navy instead of in the secret service and were now writing naval stories, well then, my fleet would be very close to sinking.

On nostalgia for the British Empire

There is this extraordinary elite that we have to deal with in our country of wealthy, landed people ... who nurse really very silly and completely out of date nostalgia about the war, about empire. And it's quite extraordinary that they still impel us, they still actually give the voice to so much of the misleading propaganda that is being pumped out at the moment.

On surveillance and technology

I'm a bit of a troglodyte ... Even operating my own iPhone and buying this and buying that and suddenly discovering that my tastes have been observed and are being pursued — I find that alone terrifying. How we control that? How we contain it? I truly don't know. One thing is sure — that the power is probably invested in Silicon Valley, not in any government. It's a nongovernmental issue if you like, and we have to get a grip on that. But it takes a far more sophisticated brain than mine to work out how you do it.

If we go on believing that there is unlimited expansion in a limited globe, I think we are heading for destruction. The globe will survive but mankind won't. Not in this form. - John le Carré

On whether there's a future for humans on the planet

If we can only shake off the rhetoric that drives us, and the lies that drive us, and we can address things like the ecology, things like the inequity of reward, the unfairness of the distribution of wealth at the most elementary levels. If we can make people feel that the social contract is back in place and they're part of it, then possibly we have a future.

But if we just go on cascading into expansion, blind expansion, if we go on believing that there is unlimited expansion in a limited globe, I think we are heading for destruction. The globe will survive but mankind won't. Not in this form.

Samantha Balaban and Martha Wexler produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

After more than 50 years writing some of the world's most acclaimed espionage novels - some of the world's most acclaimed novels - John Le Carre has accomplished something truly extraordinary - he's made badminton seem fascinating.

Nat, an almost 50-year veteran agent runner, has returned home to London for one last posting and to reclaim his championship despite the advance of years at his badminton club in Battersea. It's there a young man named Ed introduces himself and asks for a game. Before the story plays out, Nat and Ed, who know one another just on the badminton court and over a couple of pints thereafter, will find their secrets intertwined as only a John le Carre story can.

His new novel - "Agent Running In The Field." John le Carre, which, of course, is the pen name for David Cornwell, joins us from London. David, thanks so much for being with us.

JOHN LE CARRE: It's a great pleasure.

SIMON: Let's get badminton out of the way first. Do you like it?

LE CARRE: Yes, I love it. I played it when I was young. And for the purposes of my novel, it does have something rather beautiful about it. It's a very subtle game. It's rather quiet by comparison with squash. And it becomes suddenly extremely fast. But quite eccentric people play it. And I wanted that eccentricity, too.

SIMON: Your novel has suddenly become urgently timely, hasn't it?

LE CARRE: Yes, I have to say that's - in a way, it's a fluke. But of course, I've been thinking about the issues that it discusses over the last couple of years and have been rather haunted by them. So I'm glad that it comes out coincidentally at the absolute crisis of the Brexit story.

SIMON: You have a specific concern about Britain leaving Europe, too, we should say.

LE CARRE: Yeah. My great concern at the moment is that the 27 nations of Europe will lose their nerve as we come up to the deadline for Brexit. And the consequence of that, to my mind, I'm afraid, is that there will form a U.S.-U.K. nexus that will cause irreparable damage to the world and strengthen thugs and tyrants and myth-makers and people who are currently being a blight upon humanity.

SIMON: This would be under the current administrations.

LE CARRE: Something weird has emerged that I was never fully conscious of. Remember that I taught at Eton 100 years ago as a young schoolmaster. At that time, Britain launched one of the most idiotic campaigns ever. It invaded Suez. And the cabinet in those days consisted, I think, of 12 former members of the school.

There is this extraordinary elite that we have to deal with in our country of wealthy, landed people who nurse really very silly and completely out of date nostalgia about the war, about empire. And it's quite extraordinary that they give the voice to so much of the misleading propaganda that is being pumped out at the moment. Take back our power. So we take it back. Who do we give it to? Trump?

These are things that are so much about class and the intimate structure of Britain. If there's a deep state in Britain, the unconscious one is this grouping of British - not British - English nationalists of an old school who've kept their grip on the thinking of the Conservative Party here.

SIMON: I remember when the Berlin Wall came down and then the USSR collapsed, a lot of people asked what is John le Carre going to write about now (laughter).

LE CARRE: Well, it is wonderful that people think history stops. It never does. You know, there was actually a moment then when the wall came down when that absent great leader of the world could have come forward and done amazing things. There was no Marshall Plan. There was no great visionary who gave the situation a possibility. We could have got together on a quite different basis, instead of which the exploitation of former Soviet Russia by the West was pretty shocking. And if you will, the post-imperial time, the time when the two great empires ceased to be at loggerheads, that was, for me, absolutely fascinating. So it took me to countries where the grip of the Cold War upon them had suddenly been removed, and there was a sense of a directionless future. There was no voice, and a free-for-all broke out.

SIMON: Is it daunting to write a story about international intrigue when the headlines compete with it every day?

LE CARRE: Well, I think my technique is to personalize everything. If I'm angry, then I invest that in characters. And I give them a motivation that expresses that anger. It's a little bit like the horrible Stalin dictum. Twenty million people wiped out is a statistic, but a couple of people lying dead in a ditch is a national tragedy. If you take an earlier novel of mine like "The Constant Gardener," everybody knew, broadly speaking, that Big Pharma was doing dreadful things - upping the prices absurdly, using human beings in clinical tests without obtaining their proper consent and so on and so on. But that was a general point. Actually to take it down to one woman who cares, then you begin to have a story, and you begin to make a point.

SIMON: Something else occurred to me reading your novel. There is, of course, a scene which you kind of expect of the British security people watching an operation unfold on video and audio. And it occurred to me anyone and everyone can do that now. We are living in a kind of surveillance state with smart speakers and personal digital assistants and telephones that can listen to us and watch us. I wonder if you have any concern about that.

LE CARRE: I'm hugely concerned about it. And how we control that, how we contain it, I truly don't know. One thing is sure - the power is probably invested in Silicon Valley, not in any government. It's a nongovernmental issue, if you like. And we have to get a grip on that. But it takes a far more sophisticated brain than mind to work out how you do it.

SIMON: I'd still like to read a John le Carre novel about that.

LE CARRE: (Laughter) You know how old I am?

SIMON: I looked it up. And I will tell you, suddenly I log in, and I'm getting invited to buy your books and see your films and otherwise replenish the Cornwall family.

LE CARRE: That's great. Scott, Start staving now.

SIMON: John le Carré - David Cornwell - his novel, "Agent Running In The Field." Thank you so much for being with us.

LE CARRE: Thank you very much. It was lovely to talk to you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.