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A Perfect Spy

Review of John Le Carré’s ‘A Perfect Spy’

In John Le Carré’s six hundred and eighty page A Perfect Spy, we are given, what I believe, was his swansong spy novel. In what can be considered in no small part, a semi-autobiographical novel, Le Carrê presents a character study spy story whose leading character, Magnus Pym narrates his journey from lonely, unloved schoolboy to double agent. Pym’s father, Rick is a fraudster without compare, seldom a parent, more often a criminal, always a charmer. In Rick Pym we see Le Carré’s own father whom, despite his flaws, the author loved for years before finally hating and this burden haunts Magnus until the bitter end.

Through the narrative we gain a fascinating insight into England from the twenties until the early eighties, it is character driven with some of the best dialogue Le Carré ever wrote which makes his later output all the more difficult to accept. Pym, by default, was destined to become a spy, his upbringing ensured that, Le Carré delivers a masterclass in detailing English public school life and its associated characters.

The gaping hole left by Pym’s father is conveniently filled by his two handlers on either side of the political fence; shaped into a spy by Jack Brotherhood for British Intelligence he is bewitched and moulded into a Czech double agent by Axel Hempel who feeds on Pym’s sense of guilt and years of betraying his family and friends. And it is this instinctive ability to lie and betray inherited from his father that makes Pym this perfect spy and one both handlers are desperate to call their own. As the SIS net closes in on Pym the race for Brotherhood to find him first ensues whilst Pym absconds to an English seaside boarding house to write the narrative of his life in the hope his son will fare better and avoid the pitfalls Pym and his father fell into.

It’s a tragic book in many ways, the great writers of espionage fiction eschew the perceived glamour of spying for the bitter realities of a life based on lies. Pym, like his father, spent his life lying to everyone and anyone and despite their adeptness for it the truth would always out one day. A Perfect Spy is a lesson in family and the tragedy of childhood neglect, we are the product of our parents and this book begs the question of how life and indeed, history, could be different were it not for the selfishness of those who would unwittingly create the monsters of tomorrow. It is a monumental read, the classic Le Carré slow burn in all its glory and a reminder of how great his writing once was.

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