From the April 2013 issue
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I wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at the age of thirty under intense, unshared, personal stress, and in extreme privacy. As an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, I was a secret to my colleagues, and much of the time to myself. I had written a couple of earlier novels, necessarily under a pseudonym, and my employing service had approved them before publication. After lengthy soul-searching, they had also approved The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. To this day, I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t.
As it was, they seem to have concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security. This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving me with nothing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.
And to my awe, add over time a kind of impotent anger.
Anger, because from the day my novel was published, I realized that now and forevermore I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world and written about it.
But journalists of the time weren’t having any of that. I was the British spy who had come out of the woodwork and told it how it really was, and anything I said to the contrary only enforced the myth. And since I was writing for a public hooked on Bond and desperate for the antidote, the myth stuck. Meanwhile, I was receiving the sort of attention writers dream of. My only problem was, I didn’t believe my own publicity. I didn’t like it even while I was subscribing to it, and there was in the most literal sense nothing I could say to stop the bandwagon, even if I’d wanted to. And I wasn’t sure I did.
In the Sixties — and right up to the present day — the identity of a member of the British secret service was and is, quite rightly, a state secret. To divulge it is a crime. The service may choose to leak a name when it pleases them. They may showcase an intelligence baron or two to give us a glimpse of their omniscience and — wait for it — openness. But woe betide a leaky former member.
And anyway I had my own inhibitions. I had no quarrel with my former employers, quite the contrary. Presenting myself to the press in New York a few months after the novel had made its mark in the States, I dutifully if nervously mouthed my denials: no, no, I had never been in the spy business; no, it was just a bad dream: which of course it was.
The paradox was compounded when an American journalist with connections told me out of the corner of his mouth that the reigning chief of my service had advised a former director of the CIA that I had been his serving officer, and that he had told nobody but his very large retinue of best friends, and that anyone in the room who was anyone knew I was lying.
Every interview I have faced in the fifty years since then seems designed to penetrate a truth that isn’t there, and perhaps that’s one reason why I have become allergic to the process.
More from John le Carré: