Monday, April 21, 2014

The burn box

I don't think I'd ever heard of John le Carré until I watched Sir Alec Guinness play his shlubby spy, George Smiley, on public television back in the 1980s. I've probably watched that thing four or five times; what it lacks in suspense on subsequent viewings is made up for by following the deceptive mole. I enjoyed this activity as well with the more recent film, but a two-hour movie is just not the same as the deliciously drawn-out seven episodes of the television series. I developed a serious crush on Smiley's aide de guerre, Peter Guillam, in the form of Michael Jayston (much as I lurve Benedict Cumberbatch), so when Jayston began showing up as narrator for various le Carré novels, I knew one of them had to go into the ears. I opted for A Perfect Spy, probably because I know I watched the television series back in the day as well but had never bothered to read the book. (The series is currently cued up for viewing in the DVD player now that I've finished the book.)

Magnus Pym is the perfect spy. We first meet him in the dead of night, knocking on the door of a dilapidated rooming house in a small English coastal town. The landlady recognizes him, but as he holes up in the room always set aside for him, it's clear this is not his usual visit. Magnus' father, the disreputable con man Rick Pym, has recently died and -- instead of returning to his wife and his post with "the Firm" in 1982 Vienna following the funeral -- Magnus has created an elaborate false trail to arrive at Miss Dubber's. He pulls out a typewriter and begins an impassioned letter to his young son, Tom, his bildungsroman: The story of Rick Pym and his adoring son Magnus, and of another father figure, the Czech spy Axel, also known as Poppy.

Magnus' narrative alternates with the story of what his disappearance has left behind: the frantic search of his wife, Mary, and his handler, Jack Brotherhood, for the why and where.

This is great stuff -- a deeply personal story of dysfunctional family relationships expertly tied to Cold War spycraft. Magnus slowly spins out the narrative of how he came to betray his country (or does he?), yet -- raised by a professional liar, and one himself -- how can we believe anything he says? Do his handlers (on both sides) really have his interests in mind as they search for him? Where do our sympathies lie? Are we being conned? I love how this book never gives up its secrets, it just builds and builds to an ending that surprises and doesn't surprise at the same time. By the end, do we know Magnus Pym? I'm not sure we do. And that's alright.

Jayston is excellent. He keeps the lengthy novel moving with a pacing that never flags, while still pausing to delineate character or irony (there's a lot of both in Magnus' opus [tee hee!]). His speaking voice is pleasantly deep. The many characters all sound like human beings, and he does a very good job with the women, who sound female but not femmy. There's a scene where the Firm's higher-ups are meeting with their American "cousins" about the Pym problem, which Jayston accomplishes with skill -- a bunch of well-established Englishmen and Americans, each of whom has a distinct voice. He does the same with Rick's little pack of working-class hangers-on and "cheap" (and occasionally not so cheap) women. A few non-English accents (some Swiss and some Czechs) comes off as authentic and consistent.

It is with the Pyms -- Rick and Magnus -- that Jayston shines. Rick's fast-talking, confident demeanor is clear in his voice; even though you know he's on the make, it's easy to be taken in by his smooth delivery. Magnus is even better: Here's a chameleon, who adapts himself to everyone he meets, conforming to what they think he should be. Like Rick, everyone thinks they know him, but no one actually does. Even when he's writing Pym's story -- which he does in the third person with occasional bursts of raw emotion when he switches to first -- there's always a hint of the con. You never forget you're listening to the story of a man who -- even though he's telling us everything -- finds it impossible to lose the mask, the ironic dispassion, and the sense that he's smarter than everyone around him. In other words, a perfect spy.

It might be fun to listen to Jayston read in another genre; it looks like he specializes in P.D. James but not on our side of the pond. My library owns something called Midshipman Bolitho, the first of a series in the Hornblower/Aubrey-Maturin vein [yawn]. Maybe it will just have to be another le Carré. Even though many reviews say A Perfect Spy was his best work (and his most autobiographical since his father was evidently very Rick Pym-like), it's not like he's a piker in the novel department.

["Underneath the Arches" is an old tune that serves as Rick's theme song. This photograph, taken as part of the Geograph Project, is of the railroad bridge arches on Duke Street in Leeds, photographed by Betty Longbottom, and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]

A Perfect Spy by John le Carré
Narrated by Michael Jayston
Penguin Audio, 2012.  20:53

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