British spy writer John le Carré turns 85 | Books | DW | 19.10.2016
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British spy writer John le Carré turns 85

Author John le Carré worked for British intelligence before trading his badge in for a pen to become one of the UK's most influential writers. Now 85, he never wanted to be labeled a spy turned writer.

"In the old days it was convenient to bill me as a spy turned writer," said renowned British author John le Carré. "I was nothing of the kind. I am a writer who, when I was very young, spent a few ineffectual but extremely formative years in British Intelligence."

Indeed, le Carré has spent over half a century working as a writer. But during the beginning of the Cold War, in the 1950s and early 1960s, he worked for both the MI5 and the MI6, Britain's domestic and international intelligence organizations - experiences which lend his thrilling espionage novels a compelling sense of authenticity.

Le Carré was born as David John Moore Cornwell on October 19, 1931 in Poole, Dorset. His mother abandoned him at a young age and his father, who would spend some time in jail, was what he would later call a "confidence trickster and a gaol bird."

Bonn intersection in 1960 (picture-alliance/dpa/P.Almasy)

John le Carré was stationed as a spy in Bonn, the capital of West Germany, in the early 60s

Having studied modern languages at Oxford, le Carré was fluent in German and worked under cover, disguised as a junior diplomat, at the British Embassy in Bonn during the early 1960s. In his free time, he started writing spy novels, taking the pseudonym so as not to interfere with his work.

Literary breakthrough and pigeon-hole

"The Spy Who Came in from the Cold," le Carré's third novel in 1963, shot him to international fame.

He later said that his employer viewed the work as complete fiction, while the international press was convinced it was "not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side," he recalls on his website. With his novel on the bestseller list, le Carré quit his job with the British intelligence and became a full-time writer.

He would go on to publish 21 titles, most of which deal with espionage during the Cold War, including "Tinker Tailor Soldier Boy" in 1974 and "A Perfect Spy" in 1986.

Not James Bond tales, they focus on the psychological drama involved in the act of protecting fallible democracies during a period that was marked by intense political turmoil - but little bloodshed.

Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 (AP)

The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 was a symbol for the end of the Cold War

Le Carré focuses on the very question that his breakthrough novel, "The Spy Who Came in from the Cold" centered on: How far should we go in defending western values without abandoning them?

After the Cold War

The Cold War - which had formed the basis of le Carré's career both as an intelligence officer and as a writer - came to an end when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989 and the Soviet Union was dissolved in 1991.

After that, le Carré continued writing espionage fiction, but turned to other areas of global politics. "The Night Manager" (1993) traces an undercover operation aimed at toppling a major international arms dealer. In 1996, "The Tailor of Panama" introduced an expat tailor with a criminal past who gets caught up in a political coup.

"The Tailor of Panama" is one of several of le Carré's novels which have been adapted for the cinema. Filmed in 2001, it starred Pierce Brosnan, Geoffrey Rush and Jamie Lee Curtis. "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" came out in 2011, starring Colin Firth and Tom Hardy.

Pierce Brosnan (right) and Geoffrey Rush starred in The Tailor of Panama (picture-alliance/dpa)

Pierce Brosnan (right) and Geoffrey Rush starred in "The Tailor of Panama"

Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz starred in the 2005 version of "The Constant Gardener," a murder mystery based on corruption in the pharmaceutical industry and set in Nigeria.

'Our democracies are blemished'

Among the numerous accolades John le Carré has won is Germany's Goethe Medal in 2011. Presented by the Goethe-Institut, a non-profit organization that promotes the German language and cultural exchange, the annual prize is awarded to three non-Germans who uphold its values.

Upon receiving the award in 2011, le Carré said, "Europe is in critical condition. The distance between the institutions and the people is bigger than ever before."

While Europe was in the throws of the debt crisis at the time, his words take on greater significance in light of the June 2016 Brexit vote.

"We've lived in freedom for so long that our democracies are blemished" and populism is growing just as fast as social injustice, he also warned. With Europe now facing the refugee crisis and the continued growth of the far-right movement, le Carré's words are more relevant than ever.


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