Posted Friday afternoon, May 11, 2018.
In his introduction to the paperback edition of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”, John le Carré reflects on how the book became an instant bestseller because readers took it for near nonfiction, an “authentic” depiction of the spy trade at the height of the Cold War. It never was that. If it had been, le Carre has pointed out again and again, the British government would never have allowed him to publish it. The book has endured as a classic because it’s a realistic portrayal of human nature as it expresses itself under the cover of politics and, not incidentally or tangentially, business.
The novel’s merit, then---or its offense, depending on where you stood---was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people were sharing, since it asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way? My fictional chief of the British Service---I called him Control---had no doubt of the answer:
“I mean you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?”
Today the same man, with better teeth and hair, and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the twenty-first century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semiautomatic weapons and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one’s perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or, as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the third world and great banks are there to serve the public.
---from the introduction to “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” by John le Carré.