Fintan O'Toole oor John le Carré se laaste kinkel: sterf as 'n Ier

Ek’m looking at one of the last photographs of Johannes die Plein. Dit is in Oktober deur sy seun Nick geneem 2020. There is a mostly empty bottle of good beaujolais in front of him and a glimpse through the window behind of the Cornish landscape that he inhabited with such delight. His beloved wife and most important collaborator, Jane, is seated next to him, laughing heartily.

The man in the picture seems at home in the world, comfortable with who – and where – he is. Written over the last years of his life and completed by Nick, his final novel Silverview is now about to be published posthumously. The book is shot through with an elegiac kind of Englishness: beach huts in an out of season seaside town, greasy spoon cafes, net curtains.

But this photograph disrupts any notion of a life reaching a serene conclusion, of the grand old man of English letters going gently into the night. For le Carré – in real life David Cornwell – is wrapped in a flag. It is the green, white and orange tricolour of the country to which, in his late 80s, he chose to belong, the Republic of Ireland. Hy is, as Nick put it to me, “going out swinging”.

Le Carré is arguably the greatest English novelist of his generation. Hy is, moreover, one of England’s most important public moralists. He tested, perhaps to destruction, his country’s values, its sense of purpose in the world. Hy is, in the best sense, a national writer as well as an international one. Why is he so boldly declaring his allegiance to another nation?

What hovers over this happy picture is a notion that is never far away in his novels: betrayal. It is itself a tiny le Carré drama of unstable loyalties, of uncertain belongings, even, as English nationalists might see it, of treachery. But the question it poses is also the one that becomes, in his stories, so knotty: who and what is being betrayed? The answer that le Carré himself increasingly implied is that, long before he was unfaithful to England, England was unfaithful to itself, betraying him and the things that, when he served his country as a spy, he thought it stood for.

We might think of this photograph as the personal equivalent of le Carré’s literary valediction to his most famous character, the spymaster George Smiley. Smiley was always in one specific sense anti-English. Short, vet, cerebral, unsexy, morally torn, he is a knowing antithesis of – and, in the world’s imagination, competitor with – the glamorisation of a reckless, amoral Britain in Ian Fleming’s James Bond.

But in le Carré’s farewell to him, 'n Nalatenskap van spioene, published in 2017, after the Brexit referendum, Smiley’s next to last words are a direct response to Theresa May’s dismissal of unpatriotic infidels as “citizens of nowhere”. He muses on the purposes of all his cold war operations: “‘So was it all for Engeland, dan?’ he resumed. ‘There was a time, of course there was. Maar wie se Engeland? Which Engeland? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European … If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe.’”

Le Carré’s decision to die as an Irish citizen of the EU was his riposte to May’s reactionary definition of belonging: if you want to make me a citizen of nowhere, I will become a citizen of another somewhere. He could do this because his maternal grandmother, Olive Wolfe, was from County Cork. In a sense, the great storyteller was, at the end, spinning a new story about himself. As his son Nick put it in Philippe Sands’ excellent Radio 4 dokumentêr A Writer and His Country, “When the archivist who was helping him to research his roots in Skibbereen said, ‘Welcome home’, it was vastly moving for him, a huge emotional shift, an awareness of history and self which had genuinely eluded him his whole life.”

But this last twist in the thriller of his life was not just about picking a homeland. It was also, in 'n sekere sin, about picking a parent. His Irishness belonged to him through his mother. His Englishness came from his father, who wanted his son David to be a paragon of British respectability. As Nick told me, in making himself Irish at last, he was “choosing finally to step away from the caricature British gent identity that his father wanted for him”.

Peter Guillam, the Breton-born spy who features in many of the Smiley novels, speaks of “the Anglicisation wished on me by my father”. His creator was that most tautological of beings: an Anglicised Englishman. David Cornwell’s father wanted him not merely to be English, but to perform a very particular version of the national type. He would have thought the answer to Smiley’s question – Whose Engeland? – completely obvious: the toffs’.

His own formation as a fabulist owed everything to Ronnie Cornwell: “conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father”. Just as, in le Carré’s most personal novel, the traitor Pym’s experience of being the son of a fraudster makes him A Perfect Spy. Rick, the lightly fictionalised version of Ronnie in that novel, has a great line in grandiloquent self-justification: “The burden is that any money passing through Rick’s hands is subject to a redefinition of the laws of property, since whatever he does with it will improve mankind, whose chief representative he is.” It is not hard to see why le Carré would become a great hater of all forms of self-serving sententiousness, of all those in power who can so smoothly identify the interests of humanity with their own.

Easy, ook, to see where his feeling for the instability of identities and loyalties might have come from. Aan die een kant, le Carré’s father was clearly amoral to the point of being a psychopath: he swindled, not just strangers but his own mother and mother-in-law. Aan die ander kant, his fictional alter ego Rickin A Perfect Spy, has grand plans for the family’s future at the highest reaches of the British establishment: “Son. It’s time for you to set those fine feet of yours on the hard road of becoming Lord Chief Justice and a credit to your old man.”

The life of the conman is an affair of many selves. As le Carré recalled, “Ronnie’s entire life was spent walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine. He saw no paradox between being on the Wanted list for fraud and sporting a grey topper in the Owners’ enclosure at Ascot.” The son, ook, skated on the thin ice of self-invention. He recalled “the dissembling as we grew up, and the need to cobble together an identity for myself, and how in order to do this I filched from the manners and lifestyle of my peers and betters”.

He could, na alles, pass quite successfully as the kind of Establishment Englishman Ronnie wanted him to be. It is fascinating to listen to his voice in the earliest interviews in Sands’ radio documentary. In the later recordings, his accent is toned down, though still unmistakably that of the English public school elite.

He was briefly a schoolmaster at Eton. One of his pupils, Ferdinand Mount, noted his manner of dealing with upper-class yobs in his classroom: “He delivers merciless and exact parodies of their arrogant, languid voices.” But in those archive recordings from 1966, he himself sounds as if he were auditioning for a part in The Crown. It is as though the mimicry at which he excelled throughout his life is being used to constitute his public, terribly English ruling class persona.

One can hear in that voice the ease with which he must have blended in as one of the boys in MI5 and MI6, the suavity with which he could pass himself off as an up-and-coming British diplomat in Bonn. He could surely have ended up, if not quite as the Lord Chief Justice of Ronnie’s ambitions, then at least as Ambassador Sir David Cornwell. It might even have made for a perfect little English melodrama: the intensely respectable mandarin who has to pay off his old man to keep schtum about the family’s disreputable past.

To understand how he became Johannes die Plein in plaas daarvan, we have to think about two great betrayals, one highly political, the other deeply intimate. In the immediate postwar years, he was stationed in Graz in Austria. One of his main tasks was interrogating people who had crossed into the country and who were being held in camps. The purpose of the interrogations was to hunt out Nazis for exclusion and possible prosecution. Except that this purpose was suddenly reversed: to hunt out Nazis to be recruited as agents and allies against the communists.

He had, as he recalled for Sands, “really believed that I had found a cause that I could serve” in the creation of a democratic European order after the horrors of tyranny, war and Holocaust. He had, he once wrote, “visited the concentration camps of Dachau and Bergen-Belsen while the stench still lingered in the huts”. Nou, as a 20-year-old second lieutenant in the army that had helped to defeat fascism, he was expected to bring unrepentant Nazis back into the fold. It was “bewildering – I had been brought up to hate NazismAll of a sudden to find that we had turned on a sixpence and the great new enemy was to be the Soviet Union was very perplexing.”

This abrupt shifting of the moral ground opens up the murky terrain of le Carré’s great cold war novels in which noble ends and dirty means become hopelessly intertwined. At the end of Smiley’s People, published a good 10 years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, the hero has finally succeeded in turning his nemesis, Karla. “George,” his junior colleague Guillam says, “you won.” The last line of the novel is Smiley’s rueful, downbeat, “Did I? Ja. Ja, well I suppose I did.” Smiley, like his creator, is not at all sure what victory means any more.

As, in the political cynicism that took hold at the beginning of the cold war, le Carré’s great cause left him behind, he was already marked by another cold leave-taking. When he was only five, his mother Olive slipped away from their home, and from him and his older brother Tony, in the middle of the night.

As far as he was concerned, she simply disappeared for 16 jare. It is hard to blame her – Ronnie had been in and out of prison, he cheated on her prolifically, he had started to hit her and his life of deception must have been hard on the nerves. Le Carré later recalled that, when he met his mother again, she gave him a well-thumbed copy of Richard Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis in the hope that it would help him to understand his parents’ relationship. That can hardly have been reassuring.

For a child of five, wel, there can only have been a feeling of utter abandonment, leaving an empty space that could never be filled. But le Carré’s sense of being European is at least one part of his attempt to do so. He managed to flee England when he was 16, by going to the University of Bern to study German. It is both striking and poignant that, in his introduction to The Pigeon Tunnel, he says that he was not merely trying “to get out of England by the fastest available route” but also to “embrace the German muse as a substitute mother”.

In Bern, he called himself “a refugee from England”, a phrase that in 1948, when there were still millions of desperate and displaced people all over Europe, must have had a provocative perversity that only an adolescent could get away with. But it is probably truer to say that he was in search of a motherland in both senses – a place to belong to and an attachment that would compensate for the absence of his actual mother.

How better to reject the kind of Englishness his father wanted for him than to embrace the culture of England’s recently defeated enemy? The paradox that so much of the work of one of the most English of novelists is set in Germany surely delighted him, apart from everything else, for its pure contrariness. (Even Smiley is, as we discover in A Legacy of Spies, happily living out his days in Freiburg.) Le Carré refused to accept British honours or literary prizes, but he was thrilled to receive Germany’s official decoration, die Goethe Medal, in 2011. It seems a fair guess that, if he could have chosen any European citizenship, it would have been not Irish, but German.

Yet Ireland did have the advantage of being a literal motherland. It seems telling that le Carré could in fact have claimed Irish citizenship from his paternal grandmother, who seems to have come to England to work as a servant. In an essay on his father, he refers in passing to “her Irish brogue”, so he was obviously well aware of this heritage. That he chose instead to trace his roots through his mother’s family is poignant. Dit was, at the end of his life, a search for the missing maternal connection.

There is, moreover, a real case for seeing le Carré as a very peculiar kind of Anglo-Irish writer. There is a very long tradition of Irish authors enjoying the doubleness of being – in relation to England – both outsiders and insiders. It is one of the advantages of displacement. Le Carré acquired it by becoming, psychologically and politically, a kind of displaced person, an insider with an outsider’s perspective. Instead of the old Irish trick of infiltrating England, he did it the other way around, exfiltrating himself from Englishness into a richly productive fluidity of identity.

Maar, natuurlik, he never actually left. In his house in London, he kept the single thing he had that belonged to his mother, the fine suitcase from Harrods she had taken with her when she abandoned him. It was lined with a pink silk interior that was, for him, infused with a “heavy sexuality” as if it might contain “some kind of childish erotic paradise from which I had been shut out once Olive had packed her bag and left”. It is perhaps the best image of his contrary and contradictory relationship with his country: a token of painful departure that yet stays in place, a suitcase that is being carried nowhere, a lost dream that still lingers.

We Don’t Know Ourselves: A Personal History of Ireland Since 1958, by Fintan O’Toole, is published by Head of Zeus at £25. To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Afleweringskoste kan van toepassing wees.

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