The release of the 85-year-old writer’s “A Legacy of Spies” on Thursday sees the return after 27 years of a very elderly Smiley, the star of a Le Carre trilogy who bears some resemblance to the author himself.
Le Carre, whose real name is David Cornwell, worked for British intelligence between 1950 and 1964 before literary stardom struck.
He turned to writing full time after the success of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” in 1963, which included the character of Smiley.
While the author and his fictional spy have aged in the subsequent years, Le Carre reignites the thrill of Cold War espionage in his latest tale, adding a contemporary streak.
“It was terribly hard to write this book during the period of Brexit and the ascendancy of (US President Donald) Trump and I’d like to think that Smiley was aware of a sense of aimlessness which has entered into all our minds,” Le Carre told BBC radio.
“Smiley, who has spent his life defending the flag one way or another, feels alienated from it. He feels a stranger in his own country,” he said.
“A Legacy of Spies” traces a 1960s operation which pitted the British secret service against the German Stasi security service, ending with the death of an agent and a woman he tried to take to the West.
Now decades later, Smiley’s former assistant Peter Guillam has come out of retirement to provide an account of the operation alongside the spy himself.
– ‘A lot in common’ –
Those accustomed to sex symbol James Bond, complete with his snazzy gadgets, will find a strikingly different spy in the “tubby, bespectacled, permanently worried” Smiley.
“I suppose what Smiley and I have in common is that we find it difficult to remember happiness. It’s not something that comes naturally to me, I have to work on it,” Le Carre told The Sunday Times newspaper.
Le Carre said Smiley had previously sacrificed his humanity for the sake of the Cold War “cause”.
Now “he has the humanity but the cause has been taken away from him,” the author said.
“The sense of allegiance to his country — which country? which Britain? — has disappeared,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
The author, who turns 86 in October, has also opened up about his own spying past and spoke on Thursday about his activities as an “agent runner”.
“Quite contrary to the perception of agent running, this is a pastoral duty. You go in offering whatever you can offer — much more than just money and re-settlement. It’s companionship of a kind,” he said.
The author has kept out of the gossip columns while continuing to work as a prolific writer after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The novel which followed that historic moment, “The Night Manager” (1993), was transformed into a successful miniseries for British television.
Le Carre’s anti-heroes have been adapted for cinema or television six times, most recently in 2010 with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, with actor Gary Oldman portraying Smiley on the hunt for a mole within Britain’s intelligence services.
– ‘For Europe’ –
While Le Carre’s new novel, his 24th, sees a return to the intrigue of Cold War espionage, its pages were put together against a very different political backdrop.
While the dry detail of Brexit negotiations are unlikely to create a page-turner, Le Carre makes his europhile views clear in the novel when Guillam asks his former boss whether his life’s work was for Britain. “No. For Europe,” Smiley responds.
“I think his whole genesis in life — his private dream, as he now expresses it — is the salvation of Europe,” Le Carre said in his newspaper interview.
“That was, for him, the battlefront of the Cold War — for him, that was where the soul of Europe was being fought for. So, when he looks back on it all — or I do, if you like — he sees futility.”