/ 14 April 2024

Powerful voices in a world of war

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Foreboding of war: The writer David Cornwell (who wrote under the name John le Carré) at his home in Hampstead, London in 1983. Perhaps the finest evocation of a weapons peddler is in Le Carré’s The Night Manager. Photo: Geoff Wilkinson/Mirrorpix/Getty Images

Earlier years of this millennium saw fevered speculation around the time of the Nobel Prize in Literature. When next would an American writer win? Would it be Philip Roth or Cormac McCarthy? Would an American author ever win again?

As it turned out, an American did win. But he was a lyricist, a singer-songwriter who had been on the radar and in the hearts of only his true believers. Bob Dylan was an astonishing left-field choice from an ultra-conservative institution.

Dylan’s 1960s “politics” as showcased in songs like Masters of War and With God on Our Side gave the Nobel Academy political cover for honouring an American. The maelstrom of claims that his lyrics constituted poetry à la Rimbaud gave them literary justification.

When Dylan’s acceptance speech finally emerged, not at the ceremony, which he did not attend, but months later, it seemed the Academy had made a terrible mistake. A personal essay of the type often required these days from students of creative writing, it was a simplistic tour around Dylan’s early reading, which earned some kudos for him singling out Moby-Dick as seminal in his literary education.

Overall, though, it lacked the literary acuity and profundity characteristic of such speeches, with JM Coetzee’s, for instance, being both a story and a quest for existential meaning. Supporters of Leonard Cohen — singer-songwriter, novelist and poet — were incensed by Dylan’s win, and remain so.

In the dark times in which we live, however, turning back to Dylan’s very early works reveals their timeless applicability. And although Dylan always rejected being pigeonholed as a protest poet working in the medium of folk music, 60 years on from the two songs above, his opposition to the status quo is clear.

As pressure for an embargo on the supply and sale of weapons to Israel increases, who cannot be moved by the opening verse of Masters of War?   

“Come you masters of war / You that build the big guns / You that build the death planes / You that build all the bombs / You that hide behind walls / You that hide behind desks / I just want you to know / I can see through your masks.”

And: “You fasten all the triggers / For the others to fire / Then you sit back and watch / When the death count gets higher / You hide in your mansion / While the young people’s blood / Flows out of their bodies / And is buried in the mud.”

Also: “You’ve thrown the worst fear / That can ever be hurled / Fear to bring children / Into the world.” 

Those enabling the genocide in Gaza range from Daddy Warbucks arms dealers and weapons manufacturers shored up by their nation states to the states themselves — the largest supplier of jets and bombs to Israel being the United States. 

The Society of Friends (colloquially called Quakers) published an invaluable research document, The Companies Profiting from Israel 2023-2024 Attacks on Gaza, the work of its subsidiary the American Friends Service Committee’s Action Center for Corporate Accountability. 

The number of German arms makers is noticeable, and plausibly explains the comprehensive support that Germany has given Israel throughout its war on Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.

Dylan has some bitter reflections on Germany in With God on Our Side: “The Second World War came to an end / We forgave the Germans, and then we were friends / Though they murdered six million, in the ovens they fried / The Germans now too have God on their side.” 

War brings with it black markets in every commodity. In his screenplay and subsequent novella The Third Man, Graham Greene tells how the unscrupulous Harry Lime sells penicillin meant to treat children in Vienna after World War II. Arms dealers are shadier and more immediately deadly.

Perhaps the finest evocation of a weapons peddler is in John le Carré’s The Night Manager. As the novel’s dust jacket incisively evokes: “In the shadowy recesses of Whitehall and Washington an unholy alliance operates between the intelligence community and the secret arms trade.”

The eponymous manager is Jonathan Pine, for whom the job is an escape from his past and himself. What could be less demanding or threatening than running the night shift at a luxury hotel? But this turns out not to be a scenario of nothing to see here, move right along. 

There is an awful lot to notice for one of Pine’s intelligence and sentience. He is a typical Le Carré character, principled but vulnerable, hurt by the world and intent on surviving untroubled on the sidelines but unable, when big questions are asked, to deny his conscience and morality and leave those unanswered.

The action moves from West Cornwall, a part of the world beloved by Le Carré the man and novelist, to Quebec and then to the Caribbean and Panama, the last vividly conjured here as in another Le Carré novel, The Tailor of Panama. 

As with his immediate predecessors in the espionage and thriller forms, Graham Greene and Ian Fleming, Le Carré is superb in establishing a sense of place and time.

Like Greene, Le Carré puts his protagonists in situations of the most taxing moral complexity. Greene’s demands on the ethics and humanity of his main and other characters is extreme, whether the renegade Catholic priest in The Power and The Glory, or the title characters in The Honorary Consul and The Quiet American — really all moral and ethical thrillers.

So too with the night manager Pine, roused from an existential and moral slumber and stirred to fight the terrible evil of illicit arms dealing and the individual liable in this case, whom he thinks of as the worst man in the world.

It’s important to say here that neither Greene nor Le Carré inhabit the spy world of Fleming’s James Bond. Although all three served in British intelligence, Fleming most notably so, the characters and situations in their work diverge considerably.

Indeed, Fleming’s real contribution to the world is not his misogynistic, masochistic 007, a brutal killer with a highly refined taste for champagne, vintage French wines, fast cars, Jermyn Street suits, cigars and handmade cigarettes. 

Rather, it is his remarkable intelligence work during World War II, some of it so secret and far-reaching that it is only of late that bits and bobs of it have been revealed. 

Le Carré writes of what he knows and of what he suspects and intuits is going on in the real world. 

Those hunches are further informed and enlarged by research, discreet conversations and expert opinion (often legal!) so that the geopolitics, realpolitik, and machinations of multinational and trans­national corporations — as in the global pharmaceutical industry in The Constant Gardener — are a ­mirror of the real world. 

Often in the long reading relationship with Le Carré there have been moments when the reading is brought to a standstill by the thought: How did he know that would happen? 

Published in 1995, Our Game is set in what were then the little-known Russian Federation republics of South Ossetia and North Ossetia. The troubles vividly portrayed there have come to pass.

Ian McEwan once described Le Carré as “perhaps the most significant novelist of the second half of the twentieth century in Britain”. 

It’s thanks to Le Carré’s hold on the human heart that his books bite deepest, as in the envoi to Our Game, condensed, spare and yet filled with emotion.

“But the chanting was by now too loud, and he couldn’t hear me even if he wanted to. For a moment longer I stood alone, converted to nothing, believing in nothing. I had no world to go back to and nobody left to run except myself. A Kalashnikov lay beside me. Slinging it across my shoulder, I hastened after him down the slope.”

And, in the simple sentence at the end of Agent Running in the Field, his penultimate novel, the prime dilemma of Le Carré characters from his first novel Call for the Dead to his last, Silverview, running through the masterpieces The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People and A Perfect Spy: “I had wanted to tell him I was a decent man, but it was too late.”