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A Perfect Spy (1986)

by John le Carré

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,031433,153 (3.82)90
When British intelligence agent Magnus Pym disappears, two desperate searches are initiated--the hunt of agents, East and West, for the missing spy and Pym's own quest to uncover the mysteries of his own past.

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Showing 1-5 of 32 (next | show all)
Ah, John Le Carre, what can I say? A Perfect Tale ( )
  Ken-Me-Old-Mate | Sep 24, 2020 |
This book is the worst of John Le Carré. There's just no way around it. It is ponderously slow-moving in its plot, a feeling exacerbated by a kind of literary pretension that casts much of the narrative as a message to one protagonist's son. The only reason it doesn't get one star is because Le Carré is a strong writer, for all the plot faults here.

But there is no context in which I can recommend this book, unless the intended reader suffers from insomnia. ( )
  TTAISI-Editor | Jun 24, 2020 |
This novel did not resound with me. I didn't feel attached to any of the characters or events that were transpiring and it felt more like a chore that needed to be finished more than anything else. As I like other Le Carré novels, I'm not quite sure what happened in this one besides a dislike of the personal style and plot-line that A Perfect Spy had.

1 star. ( )
  DanielSTJ | Dec 28, 2019 |
I’ve read all the Karla/Smiley books, including the new one, which is great, and maybe half of the rest of le Carré. His recent memoir is also tops.

I find it interesting that the same man wrote the thrilling, taut masterpiece The Spy Who Came In from the Cold could quickly succumb to so much bloat in his following books. This one is squarely in the middle of his bloat period. I enjoyed it, but it can be tough sledding if it’s not your bag.

One of the not-unpleasurable challenges for getting into le Carré is learning his peculiar British espionage slang: lamplighters, scalphunters, mothers, the Circus, the cousins, janitors, etc. It’s never been perfectly clear how much of that is literary invention versus actual usage from le Carré’s service in MI5 and MI6. You pick it up. (It helps that some of the lecarrisms have actually jumped from the novels into general usage: he introduced the term “mole” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy). But this novel, like several of his others, features a spy that has a background in the criminal underworld, so there’s a whole ‘nother vocabulary to try to follow.

MI6 Vienna station chief Magnus Pym goes missing for reasons unknown to the Circus and his wife (herself a former “shoemaker,” i.e., forger of false documents for the intelligence service), maybe related to his work with his Czechoslovakian network. And maybe not. They scramble to find him, and figure out what to do with his network of agents (“Joes”), which the Soviets are going to roll up if he’s defected. Head of MI6 is loath to try to exfiltrate his Joes until they are absolutely certain that he’s compromised, because it would mean admitting to the Americans (“the cousins”) and MI5 (“the competition”) that they have another embarrassing mole so soon after their recent humiliation, which is not explicitly stated but understood to be the Tailor/Kim Philby defection.

Also long digressions about Pym’s upbringing by his con-man father.

About le Carré’s wandering digressions, especially in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy: some of them are amazing. The recent memoir of legendary editor Robert Gottlieb, Avid Reader: A Life (2016), contains a nugget about editing le Carré that shows his gift with interesting digressions:

"[Tinker Tailor] had an extremely intricate plot, and we did a lot of work on it—totally gratifying, since David [John le Carre’s real name is David Cornwell] was one of those rare writers who loved going back to his book, rethinking, rewriting; all he needed was a suggestion that made sense to him and he was off and running. I remember saying to him that the character Connie Sachs, the superannuated spymaster who remembered everything, was so extraordinary that I wanted more of her. He couldn’t wait to get back to her, and in a week or so I had twenty or thirty terrific new pages—a few too many. No problem. A little trimming and Connie emerged in her full glory."

p. 173. (Avid Reader is a great book for anyone interested in 20th century lit.)

The backstory of Connie Sachs is not necessary to the intricate plot, but it’s interesting as hell, and she’s an amazing character. Same with much of the character of Ricky Tarr.

The Perfect Spy is recommended. (Gottlieb, by the way, called it “to me his most interesting and moving book,” p. 174. Philip Roth called it “the best English novel since the war.”) ( )
  k6gst | Feb 26, 2019 |
Showing 1-5 of 32 (next | show all)
In his work, Mr. le Carré shows an advanced sense of irony. His characters work hard to find the truth, or to conceal it, and in the end the truth never seems to matter all that much. Life is a sort of endless agitation over unplumbable depths. If Rick Pym inadvertently made Magnus Pym into a perfect spy - a man with loyalty, but no object for that loyalty, a man who at one time or another betrays everyone with whom he has an important connection - then Mr. le Carré's father inadvertently made John le Carré into a perfect spy novelist - intimately aware of the dynamics of love and loyalty as tools to be used in the covert manipulation of men, knowledgeable in the uses of the lie, cognizant of the fragility and vulnerability of those whom life, in one way or another, has badly hurt. I accuse Mr. le Carré of no immodesty in this conceit. The books, after all, are there. He is a perfect spy novelist.
added by John_Vaughan | editNY Times, Frank Conroy (Jul 20, 1986)

» Add other authors (11 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
le Carré, Johnprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Moppes, Rob vanTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paggi, DidaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Paggi, MarcoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Risvik, KariTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Risvik, KjellTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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A man who has two women loses his soul.
But a man who has two houses loses his head.

For R,

who shared the journey,
lent me his dog and tossed
me a few pieces of his life
First words
In the small hours of a blustery October morning is a south Devon coastal town that seemed to have been deserted by its inhabitants, Magnus Pym got out of his elderly country taxi-cab and, having paid the driver and waited till he had left, struck out across the church square.
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When British intelligence agent Magnus Pym disappears, two desperate searches are initiated--the hunt of agents, East and West, for the missing spy and Pym's own quest to uncover the mysteries of his own past.

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