Wars and conflicts come and go, but the world of espionage lives on — and provides author John le Carre with ample material. The intelligence officer turned novelist has been spinning masterful spy stories since the 1960s — including The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy — and has just released his 22nd novel.
Le Carre — whose real name is David Cornwell — is a writer of fiction, so readers may be surprised to find out exactly how much of his latest book, Our Kind Of Traitor, is based in truth.
The book tells the tale of a Russian oligarch named Dima and the effort to help him defect and move to Britain. Le Carre based the book's shadowy main character on a renowned Russian criminal — actually named Dima. The novel's international money-laundering conspiracies aren't just fiction either. It's "completely out of hand," le Carre tells NPR's Robert Siegel. "We're not talking about the dirty work of criminals — we're talking about the complicity of big banks."
Le Carre first visited the Soviet Union right before the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and returned shortly thereafter in 1991. "It really was the Wild East," he says. "I don't think it's much less wild now — in the ordinary terms of running a democracy. ... It continues to fascinate me, and it continues, I think, to fascinate us all — and alarm us, slightly."
A Tale Of Two Dimas
Le Carre met the real-life Dima while doing research in Moscow in 1991. "I asked former members of the KGB to put me in touch with a top criminal," he recalls.
They met up at 2:00 a.m. at Dima's own Moscow nightclub, which was heavily guarded by former special forces officers — all with grenades strapped to their belts.
Finally, le Carre says, Dima came in "with his bodyguards and pretty girls ... he looked ridiculously like Kojak used to look in those days."
The encounter did not go particularly well. "He asked me what I wanted to know," le Carre recalls. "And I didn't really know what I wanted to know, so I kind of made it up as I went along."
In the interview, le Carre compared Dima to the Morgans and the Rockefellers — pivotal figures in American history who "got their hands very dirty" when they first started making money, but who ultimately gave back to "the country they'd ripped off" by funding hospitals, monuments and museums. He then asked if a time would come when Dima, like so many wealthy men before him, would do the same.
"He gave me a long, long, voluble Russian reply, and I thought I was really getting an intelligent answer," le Carre says, laughing. "But when it was boiled down, what he was saying, according to my interpreter, was that I should go to hell."
In retrospect, le Carre says that he used the wrong American parallel for Dima's ascent to power. The Moscow crime lord — and the spy novel anti-hero modeled after him — had a tortured history and followed the traditional path to a becoming mafia leader: He survived a humiliating childhood and shot his mother's lover at the age of 14. He was found guilty and sent to the camps in Siberia, where prisoners endured subzero temperatures and formed their own basic system of laws and punishment — leaving Dima with a confused but enduring sense of morality.
The Dima character in the novel shares this history, but le Carre insists that the man and the character are not one and the same; his knowledge of the real Dima is based on an encounter nearly two decades old.
"The last I heard of Dima in real life ... he was trying to explain to the Moscow police why he had a couple of businessmen chained together in his cellar," le Carre says. "He's disappeared from my life. But he kind of hung around as a character to be written about and developed one day."
'The Current Dismay Of The Young'
The novel's other main character, Englishman Peregrine "Perry" Makepiece, is a naive, earnest intellectual, who grew up in the working class. He has become a brilliant young professor at Oxford, but, at age 30, he feels disturbed and disenchanted. Le Carre says that Perry represents "the current dismay of the young, liberal intellectual of Europe — or for that matter, of the United States."
It is an "amazing, transitional time" in both the U.S. and in Russia, le Carre explains. "All of us, in a way, have to find new attitudes to materialism. We have to discover the limitations of capitalism." The West seems like it's "floating," he says — unable to settle on a collective ideology. "Most unhappily, we've appointed an external enemy in the form of Islam — in broad-brush terms."
Le Carre says his character, Perry, finds himself struggling with a whole "ecology" of daunting, global issues.
'I Write Better Than I Speak'
These days, it's hard for le Carre to squeeze his work in between promotional engagements and interviews.
"I have a great deal to write," says the 79-year-old author, who in September told an interviewer that he would not do any more British television appearances.
"I find myself uncomfortable these days performing in public," le Carre explains. "I decided that I was old enough and secure enough in myself to not want that anymore. ... I simply want to devote myself to writing full time and just keep my head down. I think I write better than I speak."
So British TV appearances are off the table ... but what about American radio? Will this be le Carre's last NPR interview?
"No ... we can keep the door open," le Carre tells Siegel with a laugh. "I hope so very much."