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Books Column: It’s the Age of Pax Russica – we’re all Smiley’s people now

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Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books. He's formerly the Books Editor of the Sunday Times and the General Manager for Marketing at Exclusive Books.

John le Carré won’t be around to bear his unique kind of witness to current events in Ukraine.

The writer who I will probably miss the most, as the current version of our world crumbles and disperses into motes of history, is John le Carré, of course.

With Putin’s invasion of Ukraine compounding the tectonic pressure placed on civilisation during the past five years, it feels appropriate to produce, with a flourish, a quote of Le Carré’s that one had been holding in reserve, like a bottle of 1975 Château Latour:

“There are moments which are made up of too much stuff for them to be lived at the time they occur,” he wrote in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

We have arrived at such a moment, not so? And frankly, it’s a moment made for Le Carré. For there are very few who can quilt their stories together, as Le Carré did time and again, using the full shades-of-moral-grey quota that the West faithfully supplies when the stakes are highest. On behalf of all of us whose lives and times were built on the lee side of the Iron Curtain, Le Carré’s conscience was continuously pricked, and he wrote some of the finest fiction of the past many decades as a result.

One can imagine the gears of his mind creaking to life in Cornwall as Putin held his clumsy show trial in Moscow on Monday, brooding over the terrible consequences for the world when an isolated, latter-day czar ploddingly lays down his cards. As the macabre Kremlin theatre played out, what characters would have leapt to life in Le Carré’s imagination, and what maze of world affairs would he have devised for them to fail in? 

For Le Carré, entering this maze was what counted: the act of becoming lost in it was the victory, albeit of the shoddiest, most compromised kind. 

Just before he died in 2020, Le Carré lay down a card of his own: he took Irish citizenship. A European to the core, not for him the pathetic sound and fury of the Tory bobbleheads braying about Brexit. His concern was the larger project, the matter of the shades-of-grey quilt that lay over the West and which, for all its sordidness, he was loath to see rent.

Into the current fray, he would probably have thrust a spy with Remainer tendencies – a protégé of his most famous character, George Smiley. The spy would be a fish out of water at home, a tasty morsel of prey abroad. A spy concerned with the fundamental question of how to survive under the sudden terms and conditions, evolving to produce maximum stress and fear, of Pax Russica.

Some say Pax Russica, others Pax Russiana – either way, it’s Putin, sitting atop the world’s largest nuclear arsenal, who is chiselling new rules for peace into society’s psyche. How I wish Le Carré were around to wrestle with them. I’m confident he would have: after all, fourteen years ago he published a novel, A Most Wanted Man, that served as commentary on the Pax Americana that prevailed then.

“The fact that you can only do a little is no excuse for doing nothing” is a family precept for one of that novel’s characters. I like to think it was also one of Le Carré’s own, informing, to a healthy degree, the reason he wrote tangled, clouded, world-weary spy novels in the first place.

Just fourteen years: the pendulum swings much faster than we expect. Le Carré wrote like fine wine, and it feels time to drink from his vintage of fiction again. To get drunk on it, even. 

But alas, there will be no Le Carré novel to sit with in gloomy reverie as events unfold. Even though we’re all in the new maze – all of us Smiley’s people now. DM/ML

Ben Williams is the Publisher of The Johannesburg Review of Books.

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  • Wonderfurl thoughts, beautifully expressed. Le Carre’s work is the antithesis of 007 kitch, presented almost as if he lived it, warts and all.

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