Matthew Kresal looks back at the 1986 John Le Carre novel, A Perfect Spy.
There are novels which can only be described by a single word: epic. John le Carre's A Perfect Spy, published originally in 1986, is one of those novels to be certain. It is a tale that stretches right across half the twentieth century in the form of the life of Magnus Pym, the perfect spy of the novel's title. It is also, in fine le Carre tradition, a cross between the spy thriller and a human drama, and is all the better for it.
The story revolves around the life and times of British intelligence officer Magnus Pym from his childhood to then present day of the mid-1980's. As the novel reveals piece by piece, Magnus's life has been nothing but one large training ground for a future spy starting with his childhood under his conman father Ricky, to years in Switzerland as a side effect of one of his father's scams that leads to him meeting his two mentors in the world of Cold War espionage, right through to the mid-1980s. The picture that emerges is of a man forced to spend his entire life lying and betraying sometimes out of circumstance and other times just to survive with the consequence of him becoming "a perfect spy". Magnus is also a man who is ultimately always on the run from everyone including himself. All of this means that Pym is quite possibly the best in the long tradition of le Carre's strong main characters.
A Perfect Spy also features some of le Carre's best supporting characters, perhaps the best of which is Magnus' father Ricky who is based (by John le Carre's own admission) on his own father. Ricky Pym is the man most responsible for his son's transformation into "a perfect spy" as a man who drifts in and out of his son's life with one con after another. Ricky is capable of great charisma and of being sentimental with those around him but never capable of really giving himself to any one person, including Magnus himself. Much of the novel is spent as Magnus remembers his life with his father so that the theme of a son trying to figure out his relationship with his father and how it has affected his other relationships is as much a part of the novel as the spy thriller aspects are.
There are many other fine supporting characters as well of course. There is Axel and Jack Brotherhood as the two men who become mentors to a young Magnus in the game of Cold War espionage and who, as a result of their actions and attitudes, make fine literary contrasts to one another. There is Magnus's wife Mary who finds herself caught up in the world of her husband's creation and who, in the end, is trying to find her husband both physically and emotionally. There are Ricky Pym's partners in crime, such as Syd Lemons, who also drift in and out of Magnus's life as well, or the group of CIA men who try to convince the British that Pym is not all that he seems. Each of these characters (and many others as well of course) makes for fine portraits of those who in some size, shape or form fit into the jigsaw puzzle that is the life of Magnus Pym.
For a jigsaw puzzle is exactly what Magnus Pym's life, and by consequence the novel itself, is. In chapters that virtually alternate across the 590 pages the novel switches between the present where Brotherhood and Mary search for Pym plus try to cope with what he has done and the past as Pym in letters to his son Tom (and in an oddly detached third person perspective as well) recounts his childhood and rise in British intelligence. The result is a blend of spy thriller (as the hunt for Pym intensifies along with proof of his double life) and the memoirs of a Pym who seems to fast be approaching the end of his road. In other words the present chapters are used to set up the puzzle of events that Pym is about to recount from his past. The sections where Pym recounts his past come across as much of a stream of consciousness as Pym seems to float from one aspect of his life to another in a not always chronological, or even logical for that matter, order, and (at least in the earliest parts chronologically) come from the author's own life as well. The result is a jigsaw puzzle that, with its lengthy chapters and at times stream of consciousness narrative, requires the reader to pay quite a bit of attention and spend quite a bit of time on it as well. The result though is a rewarding work to read even if it is not for all tastes.
While the narrative style and page count might be off putting to some out there for others A Perfect Spy is a fine read and perhaps le Carre's best novel. From possibly the strongest of le Carre's main characters in the form of Magnus Pym to his fine cast of supporting characters (especially Ricky Pym) the novel is full of real flesh and blood human characters. It is also a fascinating trip down the history of the Cold War, yet it is more then just that. It is also a trip down the jigsaw puzzle of what le Carre himself has called "the secret path": the path of the spy, the man who must lie and betray to survive. As much a human drama as a spy thriller, thirty years on A Perfect Spy is one of the crowning achievements of both le Carre's career and the spy book genre.
Matthew Kresal lives in North Alabama where he's a nerd, doesn't
have a southern accent and isn't a Republican. He's a host of both the
Big Finish centric Stories From The Vortex podcast and the 20mb Doctor Who Podcast. You can read more of his writing at his blog and at The Terrible Zodin fanzine, amongst other places.