“History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”
— Mark Twain

RIP John Le Carre

Posted: December 18th, 2020 | 3 Comments »

David Cornwell, aka John Le Carré, the master of the spy novel, died this week. There are a thousand obituaries of Le Carré online, but perhaps it is worth the Mekong Review remembering the author’s writing on Asia. For those obsessed with South East Asia Le Carré’s The Honourable Schoolboy, published in 1977, is without doubt the most engrossing espionage novel of the region. For Le Carré fans it is the novel in which his greatest character George Smiley begins to rebuild an effective British intelligence service in the wake of the unravelling of “the Service” following the revelation of a senior Soviet mole in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). The Honourable Schoolboy moves between Hong Kong, Vientiane, and London.

When most obituarists remember Le Carré they recall him as the master of the London ‘Circus’ and the Cold War battlefield of Berlin. However, The Honourable Schoolboy is Le Carré’s masterful Asian novel. Most recall Le Carré’s time with MI6, Britain’s foreign-intelligence service, in post-war west Germany. However, The Honourable Schoolboy reaches back to Le Carré’s early years with the domestic British Security Service, MI5, in the 1950s.

In amongst all the legends of Le Carré’s time in Germany it is worth remembering that his first job with British Intelligence was investigating Chinese industrial espionage against the UK. In the 1950s the People’s Republic of China used overseas students for industrial espionage. Le Carré was tasked with investigating mainland Chinese, as well as Hong Kong, Singaporean and Malaysian students a suspects – all ethnic-Chinese students were deemed vulnerable.

Le Carré was astonished to find that MI5’s China experts were mostly retired missionaries with rather austere views on China and the Chinese, and rather imperfect language skills. It got him thinking about an Asian novel.

Le Carré first arrived in Hong |Kong in the spring of 1974. In the colony he spent time in the fabled FCC (then in Sutherland House on Chater Road and not its current location on Lower Albert Road) a spoke to plenty of Old China Hands and several hacks who had been spending time in Phnom Penh. He spent a little time in Cambodia being shot at by Khmer Rouge snipers and met the American pilots who had flown for Guomindang opium for Air America. Time was spent back in Hong Kong, at the FCC with old China Hands who had begun their careers in wartime Chongqing and Shanghai, and further trips to Laos.

Out of all this came The Honourable Schoolboy, a masterpiece of writing about Cold War Asia that begins in Hong Kong:

‘Perhaps a more realistic point of departure is a certain typhoon Saturday in mid-1974, three o’clock in the afternoon, when Hong Kong lay battened down waiting for the next onslaught. In the bar of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, a score of journalists, mainly from the former British colonies – Australian, Canadian, American – fooled and drank in a mood of violent idleness, a chorus without a hero. Thirteen floors below them, the old trams and double deckers were caked in the mud-brown sweat of building dust and smuts from the chimney-stacks in Kowloon. The tiny ponds outside the highrise hotels prickled with slow, subversive rain. And in the men’s room, which provided the club’s best view of the harbour, young Luke the Californian was ducking his face into the handbasin, washing the blood from his mouth.’

Later the novel moves to Vientiane, a city little remembered in literature but encapsulated in The Honourable Schoolboy as a den of espionage and intrigue centred on the Constellation dive:

‘The bar was of concrete, two foot deep, so that if need arose it could do duty as a bomb shelter or firing position. Each night, in the mournful dining room attached to it, one old colon ate and drank fastidiously, a napkin tucked into his collar. Jerry Westerby sat reading at another table. They were the only diners, ever, and they never spoke. In the streets the Pathet Lao – not long down from the hills – walked righteously in pairs, wearing Maoist caps and tunics, and avoiding the glances of the girls. They had commandeered the corner villas, and the villas along the road to the airport. They had camped in immaculate tents which peeked over the walls of overgrown gardens.’

John Le Carré will doubtless be remembered mostly for his novels of the European Cold War – East and West Berlin, the treacheries of the London “Circus”, the machinations of the Soviets. But he also wrote one blistering good book about Asia, one that has never been matched in the espionage genre of the region since – The Honourable Schoolboy. If you haven’t read it then do so today. If you have, then reread it. It remains one of Le Carré’s best.      

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3 Comments on “RIP John Le Carre”

  1. 1 Tony Knox said at 12:08 am on December 19th, 2020:

    Yes it has always been one of my favourites, even if the ending doesn’t quite work. Jerry Thursby, whom we’d met before, is one of his best creations, and he evokes the dirt and risk of the Golden triangle quite marvellously.

  2. 2 Tim O'C said at 11:12 pm on December 19th, 2020:

    Jerry Westerby.

  3. 3 Paul French said at 12:05 am on January 6th, 2021:

    Thursby is from Hammett’s the Maltese Falcon

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