Magnus Pym's father was a charismatic con-man who lies and cheats his way through life. So Magnus has been given the perfect background for a position in the intelligence service. All his life Magnus has attempted to distance himself from his father but his efforts have been doomed to failure. The book begins with the death of his father. Magnus leaves Vienna very suddenly and disappears. Immediately a search for him begins as suspicions arise that he may be a double agent.
But Magnus has not gone to the Eastern Bloc, he is holed up in a Devon flat and is writing his memoirs for his schoolboy son, Tom. There are many reflections throughout on love, betrayal, loyalty and deceit. Pym deceives and is deceived in turn throughout his life. The meetings he has with agents are long and painstaking - very reminiscent of Smiley's techniques. Much of the writing is terrific as we are drawn into his shady world.
It is a brilliant book, but quite hard going. I listened to it as an audiobook - this was beautifully read by Michael Jayston but could be quite confusing at times. Where were we? When is this happening? Who is narrating? Nonetheless it was worth hanging on in to the very moving climax.
I bought this when it first appeared in 1986 (and have been first in line for every Le Carre since then), read it a couple of times, and have dipped into it occasionally over the years. I re-read it last week and was reminded all over again of Le Carre's great gift for description and dialogue. With just a few words, he can give you the voice (and a lot about the character, nationality and background) of the person speaking so exactly that they become instantly familiar. This rich vein runs throughout his writing, but it's particularly noticable when he describes a meeting - as here, when representatives from the Americans and British secret services are discussing the whereabouts of Magnus Pym, the perfect spy of the title.
The story is a kind of autobiography, as Pym sets out to describe his life's journey for his son, aiming - for once - to avoid any duplicity in the telling; in addition, as others have pointed out, it contains many elements from Le Carre's own life - his crooked father, his education in Berne and Oxford, and his career in MI6. If, at the end of this memorable book, we feel we don't understand Pym as well we do the other characters we've met - his wife, his father, his handlers (British and Czech) and his American colleagues, that could be the greatest tribute to Le Carre's powers: to have given such a detailed account of every aspect of his life, and yet to have retained an air of mystery around him.
Rereading this book, I had a mild sense of nostalgia for the era it describes. I was fortunate enough to visit Czechoslovakia not long after it was published, and a couple of years before the Velvet Revolution, after which the country became (amongst other more worthy things) yet another location for Planet Hollywood, Borders and cheap stag weekends.
on 9 March 2004
"Love is whatever you can still betray... Betrayal is a repititious trade." (from: A Perfect Spy)
Concentrating on his signature themes of love and deceit, Le Carre gives us what is perhaps the definitive account of the psychology of betrayal. Following the death of his father, the disturbed and grieving spy Magnus Pym withdraws from the world and begins a series of reflections on his life while his wife and spymasters frantically try to find him. The 'public' action of this search, and the personalities of those conducting it not only provide an effective foil for the intensely personal and sometimes dark nature of Pym's inner search, it also amplifies the moral theme of the book--that there is no clear line between good and bad, and that our best intentions are no guarantee of goodness--especially when there are secrets involved.
Le Carre spent a long time honing his voice for this powerful novel. His writing in the decade or so before this book was published (in 1986) displays the trademark qualities of detail and subtlety that a cold war spy needed, and Le Carre's spare prose mirrors the Machiavellian cold war game his stories centre around. In this work--strongly influenced by the real-life death of his father--he reached the height of his powers. On top of his renowned ability to make highly technical plots gripping, Le Carre adds a new quality--the wistful--and it works as well as in anything by Graham Greene--another gimlet-eyed writer who had connections with the spying trade. Le Carre packs more feeling into this work than in all his other novels put together and the effect is both disturbing and intensely moving. Pym is sententious and elegant in his reveries, and his Hamlet-like angst stays with us, provoking difficult questions, long after the book is closed.
A perfect Spy is not a happy tale. The description of the young Pym and his father playing football along a Dorset beach "from one end of the world to the other" is a rare moment of joy that is nevertheless saturated in pathos--for we know that Pym's dissolute father will spoil the moment yet again soon.
Several of Le Carre's previous novels (Small Town in Germany, The Spy who Came in from the Cold, and especially the Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy trilogy) are examples of fine literature that just happen to centre around the world of espionage, but since 1980 he has also dropped some Desmond Bagley-ish shoot-em-ups into the mix too, which, although well crafted, rather let his literary reputation down. A Perfect Spy is a first class novel (one reviewer described it as one of the best British novels since the war) and in my opinion remains his finest.
on 12 August 2007
This is a whopper of a book! A great story - the piercingly honest account of a man both reacting to, and living in, the shadow of a powerful con-man father - with a vivid decription of betrayal and spycraft, and fantastic entertainment as well. But I am thoughly biased, as his prievious work, particlarly early in his writing career, has given me so many hours of pleasure. You can pick holes in it, but I'm not going to. Take it for what it is - a master of fiction treating us to the anatomy of deceit from the inside. He should know - he lived it. A jewel in the crown of Le Carre acheivement and a masterpiece of autobiography.
Dr Michael Rowlands
on 29 September 2012
I wish I had read all the glowing reviews before starting to plough through this book. I assumed that the author's name would be a guarantee of a "good read" -- yes, some people do find that sufficient! -- but the first half of the book is turgid and confusing. I couldn't keep straight who was who or who was speaking. Is this because I was only reading late at night when perhaps my concentration was going?
After reading The Constant Gardener, I feel truly let down by the opaqueness and self-conscious writing and wordsmithing of A Perfect Spy. Yes, I'm willing to go back and start again, now that I have a clue about the subject matter, but is this what the author really wanted of us lesser mortals of more restricted understanding?A Perfect Spy
NB: Although Amazon, in their infinite wisdom, have lumped together reviws of both the novel and the BBC radio adaptation together, this is a review of the BBC Radio adaptation.
In many ways A Perfect Spy appears, alongside The Little Drummer Girl, to be John le Carre's most autobiographical novel, tracing the way a conman father leads a young man into a life of betrayal that finds a natural home in the intelligence services before reaching catharsis through writing. In this case the young man isn't David Cornwall but Magnus Pym, a British embassy counsellor who goes AWOL after the death of his father, throwing his colleagues into a panic over whether he has defected or simply had a breakdown. It's an intriguing structure, following parallel investigations - those of his former colleagues into his own domestic affairs, alternately interrogating or charming his wife and son, and his own literary investigation into his relationship with his father that has cast such a long shadow over his life. Yet somehow this BBC Radio adaptation from 1994 never quite works as well as it should divorced from le Carre's prose. There's a fine cast led by James Fox, Harriet Walter and Julian Rhind-Tutt (the latter particularly good), but as with other radio adaptations of this period the performances are generally good but have that slightly overstated feel you find in so many radio plays that keeps things a little too distant to get under the skin and allow the piece to work as the kind of character study it does on the printed page. But perhaps the biggest problem is that there's not really enough going on at first, especially when reduced to eight half-hour parts. That's less of a problem with this CD because you can just listen to then all in one go without having to wait a week for the next part, but it never leaves enough of an impression even as a continuous experience. Worse, while the Prodigal Father may cast a giant shadow on his son's soul, he doesn't really make much of an impression in Rene Basilico's adaptation which gives Malcolm Tierney far too little to do, seriously diluting the drama and our tortured hero's dilemma. It's a decent effort, but you're probably better off sticking with the BBC TV adaptation or, better still, the novel.
This is a review of the BBC Audio CDs of the 1993 BBC radio play adaptation of John Le Carre's novel. There are 4 CDs in this boxed collection.
I listened to this in the car over the course of a couple of long journeys and for me it was perfect for this, holding my attention completely and giving a fascinating insight into the 'Firm'; British Intelligence. Magnus Pym, the Perfect Spy, goes to his father's funeral and doesn't come back, throwing his colleagues into a spin, with the possibility that he has 'turned'. The narrative strands move between Magnus, holed up, with a seaside landlady and writing his novel/memoir exploring his relationship with his con man of a father, a 'colourful personality', and his long relationship with another father figure in his life, his agent on the other side of the Iron Curtain. Meanwhile, yet another father figure, Jack Brotherhood, his mentor in the service, tracks down and questions key people in his history.
James Fox is perfect as Magnus Pym and there is a strong cast: Harriet Walter and Julian Rhind-Tutt are also excellent. I agree with another reviewer that this adaptation by Rene Basilico does not make us really feel the charisma of Rick Pym, Magnus'scad of a father. Nonetheless this is a very strong pridcution and if it leads you to the book A Perfect Spy and the TV adaptation A Perfect Spy: Complete BBC Series (3 Disc Box Set) [DVD] then that's all the better.
on 11 January 2007
Spying it seems, although an exciting occupation in some ways, is bad for the soul. If you're hoping to read a gripping, very plotty spy story you're likely to be disappointed with this book. This is a deeply personal but fascinating, philosophical book on the nature of identity, loylaty and love. For me this book is about belonging some where: to a country, to a class, to other people. Pym it seems has been searching all his life for somewhere to live where he feels he belongs. His father, a crook and professional liar is a constant disappointment but probably worst of all a deeply destablising influence in Pym's life so much so that Pym's desperation to please propels him into all sorts of trouble and betrayal.
Gripping, thought-provoking intelligent, semi-autobiographical but not for lightweights.
In a collection of 4 CD's this dramatisation of the wonderful and highly regarded story by John LeCarré is a compelling story to listen to. From beginning to end it lasts about 4 hours. Firstly, it's not an easy procedure to transfer the CD's onto your iPod (or similar) as the individual chapters on each CD are generically named Track 1, Track 2 etc. Annoying but not insurmountable.
The dramatisation itself was first broadcast in 1993 and, I felt, not the best produced by the BBC but it is an adequate rendition of one of the classic cold war spy stories. I am never sure that abridged versions of novels do the original justice and I think that in this case, on balance, it does not. Too much background characterisation and scene setting is missing and that disappointed me slightly despite it being a story I like and am familiar with.
The beauty of audio books for me is that you can listen to a story while doing something else (such as gardening or driving). This requires the characters to be well defined, distinguishable and memorable. In this case the audio book would be best listened to with no distractions as in my opinion the character definitions are a bit woolly.
If you are an avid LeCarré fan then this BBC dramatisation may be for you but if it's your first foray into his stories then I really would recommend the book instead. Good but still only 3 stars.
on 19 December 2006
The first and most important thing to remember about this book is that it is a semi-autobiography. The background, schooling and parents of the main character of this book are all Le Carre's own, with just the slightest veneer placed over them, and I do mean the slightest. Like Magnus Pym, the main character in this book, Le Carre, for example did have a father who was a crook; his father did fight a by-election in Norfolk under the Liberal colours and was, during it, exposed by an elderly Irishwoman; he did have to leave Eton when his father could no longer afford the fees.
And like Magnus Pym, Le Carre was recruited into MI6 and probably, like Pym, was recruited while studying in Bern, although unlike Pym he left after five years to write novels. However, for anyone who knows a little of Le Carre's life story, an added frisson is added by the questions that inevitably provokes - did Le Carre get up to anything naughty with Eastern Bloc intelligence services? Unlikely, but amusing to ponder.
However, the spy stuff, as beautifully crafted as it always is, is only a backdrop for the real theme of the book - Le Carre's relationship with himself, his father and his country.
Yes, his country; this is as much an elegy for the English upper-middle class as anything else. A melancholy, fatalistic patriotism seeps through every page of the book, as Le Carre writes an elegy for his people - perhaps patriotism isn't quite the write word; he has no feeling for nor interest in the St. George's flag waving, football supporting masses. It's an elegy not for England, but for his England, of `sound' men in tweeds and pipes emerging from Southern country towns to rule colonies; of the respectable sadism of the public school; of the sense of duty of a military class that has all but disappeared. The theme of fallen empire runs through all Le Carre's works, but nowhere more strongly than through this one and does so with characteristic brilliance.
With regards to his father and himself, he says what he may not have been able to say for decades, even to himself, before, and his writing bursts forth in great, emotional, torrents. Some of it moving and powerful; some of it is unnecessary but quirkily interesting; and some of it, frankly, is twaddle that needed a good editor to batter into shape. But this was Le Carre's magnum opus, and bestselling authors are allowed a little latitude in their magna opera. That's a pity, because this could have been a great book; but at times it takes a chapter to say what a sentence should have; and at times it is so hopelessly self-indulgent that it sends one to sleep.