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Written just a year before his death in 2020, John Le Carré’s ‘Silverview’ represents the culmination of an era of masterly espionage fiction, the likes of which, will, arguably, elude all attempts at replication. Le Carré’s swansong does not disappoint. Slim (just over 200 pages in length), yet spectacular, Silverview holds no secrets when it comes to the author’s views or loyalties. Employing a degree of lucidity that warms the very cockles of the heart, Carré lampoons the Secret Service for the harm caused by them and the agency’s lamentable lack of remorse over such impairment.
The beginning of the book is bleak and dreary. A young lady going by the name of Lily, with her child Sam, in a stroller, braves inclement weather and a torrent of conflicting emotions in delivering an envelope at a London house. Lily has been strictly instructed by the originator of the message contained within the confines of the envelope, her own mother, to wait until the beneficiary of the message provides an oral response. Accomplishing her deed, Lily makes a swift and furtive exit.
The action then shifts to an equally (if not more) windswept and quaint East Anglian seaside town. Julian Lawndsley, a young man tired of all the ‘excesses’ that is the preserve of city life takes over a book shop. The fact that the world of literature to him is a virgin territory does not deflect or detract from his determination. Just when Julian is at his wit’s end in trying to wrap his head around the esoteric world of books, a saviour appears in the form of an absolute mad hatter. “Mad as a flute” in Julian’s own words, Edward Avon manifests at his doorstep and incredulously suggests using the basement of the shop for establishing a “Republic of Literature.” As a start he also recommends that Julian begin reading “The Rings of Saturn” by W.G.Sebald. Edward also prepares a painstakingly handwritten manifest of six hundred “choice” books which Julian would do well to procure.
Edward’s presence and the untimely demise of his spouse Deborah Avon sets off a chain of cascading events at the eye of all of which is the mysterious Stewart Proctor. “Proctor The Doctor” after toiling and moiling away at, and for the Secret Service has reached a point where stagnation represents progress. Proctor perks up visibly when the appearance of Edward Avon offers an opportunity to elevate his career to a pedestal hitherto imagined. This opportunism takes Proctor to make an inquiring visit to two former Secret Service colleagues who make a couple too. The simple yet profound gravitas permeating the conversation demonstrates with scathing brilliance the métier of le Carré. At the end of the mild interrogation, Phillip who has been felled by a stroke advises Proctor, “between ourselves – don’t tell your trainees or you’ll lose your pension – we didn’t do much to alter the course of human history, did we? As one old spy to another, I reckon I’d have been more use running a boys’ club. Don’t know what you feel.” These lines encapsulate the quintessential feature of the book and carry with aplomb the unmistakable message it conveys.
Juxtaposing wicked wit with wistful wisdom, Carré regales his readers one last time. He does it with a sincerity that is apparent, and an urgency that is timely. Joseph Quincy Mitchell reporting for the New Yorker dazzled his readers with a stunning cocktail of riveting pieces and alluring books. He was, during the peak of his writing, a candidate for the world’s greatest living reporter. But he unfortunately was racked by “writer’s block” and suffered from depression throughout his life. For the last 31 years and six months of his career he went to the New Yorker’s office, got out the lift, perched himself before his typewriter and intermittently clacked away. But he did not hand in a single piece. Out of sheer respect, his employer allowed him to retain his office and $20,000 salary.
Carré, sans Silverview and a half dozen works before that would still go down in the world of literature as one of the unparalleled masters of his genre. Every reader who has read the warring of wits between Smiley and Karla will wholeheartedly endorse this claim. The omnibus trilogy of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People firmly installed Carré as the numero uno in his class. But over the years one can discern a not so understated shift or alteration in the works of the master. Agitation and angst seem to have prevailed over aesthetics. May be this is a sign of the torment nursed by Carré against the changing times. The use of expletives is more liberal, and protagonists willingly allow themselves to be bested by bouts of frustration. But the magic still remains unblemished, untarnished and untainted.
Silverview is also the name of the house where Edward resides. This part of the story reminds me of the James Bond movie, Skyfall. Edward’s residence is as dear to him as was Skyfall to M. Carré informs his readers that the name of the house is derived from Nietzsche’s own house which was named Silberblick. Both M as well as Edward seek their ultimate redemption in the cavernous confines of homes that are not just dear to them, but have in fact gone on to define them. Both Ian Fleming and Carré couched the greatest strength of their characters within the shroud of immense vulnerability. Perhaps, it was experience that bestowed on them this facet, what with both men hailing from the Services themselves.
It is perhaps a fitting coincidence that the publication of Silverview and the latest, and in all probability, the final installment in the Bond Franchise Die Another Day follow closely in each other’s wake. There could not have been a more poignant and parallel ending to the lives of one of the greatest spies the world has ever seen and one of the greatest creators of spies that the world has been privy to. Many a time, at the intersection of fact and fiction, lies the absolute truth.