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A Perfect Spy (1986)

by John le Carré

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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3,233503,107 (3.83)104
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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An almost perfect spy book. So many names of so many spooks in the first part that it's difficult to know exactly what's going on. Give that up and just keep going and all wraps together beautifully. ( )
  lisahistory | May 24, 2021 |
I never in my life would have thought I would enjoy this book as much as I did. It is a classic of spy literature and rightfully so. And it's also not so much the cloak and dagger type of thing, the "I saw my contact across the street with a newspaper and we had a conversation about such-and-such country" but rather what it takes for someone to become a perfect spy.

The events happen and are explained, and then referred back to again and again until the entire narrative and its missing parts come together. The mastery of writing that this takes is not to be overestimated; I've recently left reviews of books that seem to jump all over the place without a firm plotline. But this book is different.

It starts with the grandfather, a notable MP, then Rick the father establishing himself as a good talker, and Pym taking in the adoration of his father while painting a fuller picture of a con-man. What is another constant theme are the people who get caught up in plots and cons and who really pays the price.

Pym's life is haphazard at best, teaching him that nothing is stable and to believe no one. His first love, Lippsie, is one of Rick's chief assistants and probably his mistress, who is his bright and shining light in Pym's horrible boarding school. Through overheard conversations between her and Rick, Pym begins to learn that words like "thief" belong to his dad.

While I wanted to results of the central investigation that are the central plot of this book to play out differently, le Carre creates a shattered soul who reaches out to a kindred spirit. The human costs of con artists become front and center with Pym and Axel and the countries they serve. ( )
  threadnsong | Apr 4, 2021 |
What a great read. Twists and turns, betrayal, love and hate all mingle for a story with fascinating, fully-fleshed characters and a plot that races. ( )
  rosiezbanks | Apr 3, 2021 |
a life of deception ends in autobiography and suicide
  ritaer | Mar 26, 2021 |
Even without context, John le Carré’s A Perfect Spy—a tale of a British secret agent who betrayed his country because he couldn’t unlearn the lessons taught to him by his conman father—would still be a remarkable book. But if you read the foreword to the revised edition, you’ll see that le Carré based the conman on his own father. And if you read about le Carré, you’ll find that he used to be a spy himself. The combination recasts the novel as a self-reflective meditation on how and why we break bad.

The story begins in the 1980s. Magnus Pym—the British spy and le Carré’s avatar—has disappeared following the death of his disreputable father Rick. Three countries’ worth of intelligence agencies begin looking for Magnus: the British, the Czechs, and the Americans (all of whom he’s been playing for fools). For a time, he’s able to elude them and write his confession in a series of long letters that take us back to his upbringing during and after World War II.

This unfolds as a narrative tangle. The cutbacks are sudden, and the characters’ inner monologues appear without adornment. (Most authors nowadays would italicize first-person thoughts. Le Carré presents them as plain text.) More confusingly, Magnus’s letters frequently toggle between first and third person while he’s talking about himself. The inconsistency is intentional, however. Magnus is showing us his many aspects, the younger possibilities that only later fused into the present version—the one he likes least. (And the one he most often refers to as “I” and “me.” The other identities are generally just “Pym.”)

Occasionally, Magnus addresses the intended recipients of his letters, which brings in second person. In a few passages, we get all three viewpoints within a few sentences. For example: “I remember asking what crowd you fought with, sir, expecting you to say ‘Fifth Airborne,’ or ‘Artists’ Rifles’ so that I could look suitably awed. Instead you went a bit gruff and said, ‘General List.’ I know now that you were exercising the double standard of diplomatic cover: you wanted it to cover you, but you also wanted Pym to see through it.” (“I” refers to Magnus in this section. “You” refers to his British spymaster. “Pym” also refers to Magnus.)

But once you get used to it, this all flows wonderfully. Le Carré’s prose is both elegant and affable. What he lays out isn’t a James Bond story; barely a shot is fired (although there is plenty of sex). The focus isn’t on the spy craft, either (although what’s here feels authentic—as it should—tricks of the trade from earlier eras). Instead, le Carré spends the bulk of the book chronicling Magnus’s relationship with his father and how it shaped him, giving him the tools to charm, deceive, and manipulate, as well as an insatiable need to please. These are the traits that made him an attractive agent to various intelligence agencies; these are also the traits that led him to cheat them.

Le Carré clearly isn’t a romantic about espionage—or his own childhood.

As I worked through A Perfect Spy, I couldn’t help wondering if the point-of-view shifts started off subconsciously. Did le Carré write “I” instead of Magnus, realize what he’d done, and decide to make it a device? (He includes a suggestive passage near the beginning, when Magnus’s second wife recalls one of his attempts at a novel—another autobiographical overlap. “There was a Chapter Eight …” she admits. “Slipping from third to first person and staying there, whereas the [earlier chapters] were ‘he’…”)

Fortunately, le Carré didn’t go down the same road as Magnus. The author managed to transcend his nurture—and maybe his nature. He even seems to have his protagonist articulate this at one point: “Putting down his pen, Pym stared at what he had written, first in fear, then gradually in relief. Finally he laughed. ‘I didn’t break,’ he whispered. ‘I stayed above the fray.’”

The novel ends less hopefully. But that personal connection made A Perfect Spy an especially compelling read.

(For more reviews like this one, see www.nickwisseman.com) ( )
1 vote nickwisseman | Mar 24, 2021 |
Showing 1-5 of 40 (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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