In the late 1950s as the “cold war” with the Soviet Union and the West was heating up, the gentleman known today as John le Carré was hard at work in the British Secret Services. The man was also known as David Cornwell – his given name – and his attachment to The Security Service,” (otherwise known as MI 5. which is charged with the protection of “the UK, its citizens and interests, at home and overseas, against threats to national security;” and the Secret Intelligence Service (also known as MI 6, which is charged with the gathering of intelligence “outside the UK in support of the government’s security, defence, foreign and economic policies”. Mr. Cornwell served with both, and while each branch has distinctive missions, both are certainly meant to be as opaque to outside scrutiny as possible.
Following the success of his third novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, published in 1963, David Cornwell opted to come in from ‘the cold war,’ himself, as an active participant, and has occupied himself single-mindedly as a best-selling author ever since, featuring themes familiar to intelligence operations previously depicted in print by Ian Fleming — a former naval intelligence officer — in the daunting and debonair personage of James Bond, beginning with Casino Royale, in 1952, (up through Fleming’s death in 1964); and in television series in a wide range of treatments from The Avengers, which ran through the decade of the1960s, a UK production which featured an extremely competent John Steed and some equally competent assistants, Emma Peale and Cathy Gale — to Mission Impossible, a U.S. production featuring a team of secret government agents known as the ‘Impossible Missions Force.’ which ran from the late 1960s through 1973.
But it was John le Carré who distinguished himself in the genre by his realism, exemplified in a snippet of dialogue from the film version of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, which featured Richard Burton in the leading role as a brittle alcoholic, torn between his desire to serve his nation’s interests and his overwhelming desire to escape from every aspect of this alienating lifestyle. As the jaded spy he has become, Alec Leamas asks his erstwhile love interest:
“What the hell do you think spies are? Model philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong?”
Oddly enough, it is David Cornwell himself — as the author John le Carré –who seems, in the novels that have followed the end of the cold war, to have been ‘measuring everything’ that secret operatives do ‘against the word of God;’ and in later novels deliberating like a monk in a cell to ‘balance right against wrong,’ — and occasionally, perhaps, measuring the prospective inequities of globalization and the excesses of multinational corporate power, if not as against the work of Karl Marx, at least against the well-being of mankind, generally, and the jeopardy in individual interests versus those multinational corporations.
In his 22nd novel, published in 2010, “Our Kind of Traitor,” an ordinary middle-class couple visiting Antigua on holiday share an interest in tennis with a Russian fellow called Dima, who eventually lets them know that he wants to defect and to betray his compatriots by the sharing of top secrets about the methods they had employed in their money laundering operations. In an interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now — see the attached video of the full program, above — David Cornwell explains:
“Now, this isn’t fiction. That part of it isn’t fiction. Money laundering is simply everywhere. On the grand scale, it’s endemic to banking. You have to bear in mind that when Lehman Brothers wasn’t going to function anymore and the big banks weren’t lending to one another, back at that terrible time, $352 billion of illegal money were then tacitly released upon the market, and that was about the only money people were lending to one another. So, money laundering is not some distant fantasy. It’s actually how you handle the profits of extortion, tax evasion, criminal conspiracy and huge quantities of drug money, how you get that into the white sector. …”
Another notable film adaptation of le Carre’s novels was “The Constant Gardener,” which he describes as follows:
“It’s a young fellow in the Foreign Office, born into the clover, Eton-educated, a sense of political responsibility, a little bit of a frozen child, stiff parents, no love in his early life, falls in love with a beautiful, idealistic young woman, and she marries him. It’s almost she who does it. And they go off to Kenya, and she engages in charitable work and comes upon evidence that a big pharmaceutical company is using a bunch of people in a village in Africa, in Kenya, as human guinea pigs. They sign the consent forms. They don’t know what they’re signing. They’re bullied into it by the local representatives of the pharmaceutical company. Everything is outsourced. Everything is given away to other people, so that the company itself is never directly responsible. And she becomes very involved in this. She takes a stand, and she is murdered. He, who adores her, comes to the conclusion that he must take up her message and take up her fight, and carries it on. And in the end, romantically — I’m nothing, if not a romantic, in some respects — in the end he dies, as part of the mission, and you may say that he joins her, makes a similar sacrifice. And so, they, both of them, did the decent thing against the most anonymous and horrific kind of threat, which is one of sort of untouchable corporate power.
The things that are done in the name of the shareholder are, to me, as terrifying as the things that are done — dare I say it — in the name of God. Montesquieu said, “There have never been so many civil wars as in the Kingdom of God.” And I begin to feel that’s true. The shareholder is the excuse for everything. And, to me — I’m not suggesting we make some sudden lurch into socialism, that isn’t the case at all. I think it’s more to do with the exercise of individual conscience.”
As David Cornwell explains, Congo is both blessed and at the same time is cursed with astonishing quantities of diamonds and other rare mineral resources, and with oil, as well:
“God help them, because without any civil society to function, they have been exploited, not simply in terms of boy soldiers, awful gang wars that sweep through the jungle, mass rape as a military weapon, they’ve been subjected to every hell on earth, these poor people.”
And it is John le Carré’s pen — and his very active imagination and compassionate heart — which has indeed been ‘speaking truth to power,’ with the very same mission of the Intelligence Service at the beginning of the twentieth-century, as it was founded by Captain Kell of the British Army to fulfill — in October 1909 — as detailed in “The Defence of the Realm:The Authorized History of MI5,” by Christopher Andrew, to commemorate the centenary of the British Security Service.