The Perfect Spy – John LeCarre, 1986
“If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country,” said writer E. M. Forster. In this character study of a conflicted spy, LeCarre gives an example so that we can consider the implications and complications of Forster’s assertion.
Based in Vienna, Magnus Pym has a stable job as a case officer for spies in Czecho for Britain. Like many of us in our fifties, he is dealing with the recent death of his father. Magnus is not taking it well. He bolts. The puritan fascists of the CIA think he’s gone over to the Reds. The British espiocrats, concerned about yet another scandal, pull out the stops to find him.
Much of the book is taken up with masterful dialogue as Magnus’ superior, Jack Brotherhood, interrogates Pym's second wife, Mary, and their teen-aged son. Magnus has disappeared down his bolt hole in a south Devon coastal town. He’s writing his memoirs, which center on his dead father Rick. LeCarre shifts between first and third person in the sections that look at the past, which is mildly confusing. But he brilliantly captures the ups and downs of the criminal milieu of con-man Rick and the excitement of political campaigns and their inevitable dirty tricks. Rick used and disposed of everybody that loved him. Magnus, too, discovers that he himself compulsively charms love from others and then betrays them. That’s one way, of many, of never letting people get close.
Magnus examines how after WWII he betrayed the best friend of his youth, a German-Czech refugee named Axel. Meeting Axel years later, when both of them had become spies for the West and East, it became impossible not to betray his country instead of his friend. Axel gets to the pith of the question, "Does it amaze you that Pym, by making bonds with the forbidden, should be once more escaping from what held him?"
At 600+ pages, this novel is Dickensian in length, tone and characterization. LeCarre’s tone is too somber and maudlin in couple of passages near the conclusion. Overall, however, the tone is suitably melancholy and often as stirring as it was in the excellent 1977 novel The Honorable Schoolboy.