‘I wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold at the age of 30 under intense, unshared, personal stress, and in extreme privacy. As an intelligence officer in the guise of a junior diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, I was a secret to my colleagues, and much of the time to myself. I had written a couple of earlier novels, necessarily under a pseudonym, and my employing service had approved them before publication. After lengthy soul-searching, they had also approved The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. To this day, I don’t know what I would have done if they hadn’t.
‘As it was, they seem to have concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security. This was not, however, the view taken by the world’s press, which with one voice decided that the book was not merely authentic but some kind of revelatory Message From The Other Side, leaving me with nothing to do but sit tight and watch, in a kind of frozen awe, as it climbed the bestseller list and stuck there, while pundit after pundit heralded it as the real thing.
‘And to my awe, add over time a kind of impotent anger.
‘Anger, because from the day my novel was published, I realised that now and forever more I was to be branded as the spy turned writer, rather than as a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it.
‘But journalists of the time weren’t having any of that. I was the British spy who had come out of the woodwork and told it how it really was, and anything I said to the contrary only enforced the myth. And since I was writing for a public hooked on Bond and desperate for the antidote, the myth stuck. Meanwhile, I was receiving the sort of attention writers dream of. My only problem was, I didn’t believe my own publicity. I didn’t like it even while I was subscribing to it, and there was in the most literal sense nothing I could say to stop the bandwagon, even if I’d wanted to. And I wasn’t sure I did.
‘In the 60s – and right up to the present day – the identity of a member of the British Secret Services was and is, quite rightly, a state secret. To divulge it is a crime. The Services may choose to leak a name when it pleases them. They may showcase an intelligence baron or two to give us a glimpse of their omniscience and – wait for it – openness. But woe betide a leaky former member.
‘And anyway I had my own inhibitions. I had no quarrel with my former employers, quite the contrary. Presenting myself to the press in New York a few months after the novel had made its mark in the States, I dutifully if nervously mouthed my denials: no, no, I had never been in the spy business; no, it was just a bad dream – which of course it was.
‘The merit of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, then – or its offence, depending where you stood – was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old question that we are asking ourselves 50 years later: how far can we go in the rightful defence of our western values, without abandoning them along the way? My fictional chief of the British Service – I called him Control – had no doubt of the answer:
“I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?”
‘Today, the same man, with better teeth and hair and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the 21st century, or defending the inalienable right of closet psychopaths to bear semi-automatic weapons, and the use of unmanned drones as a risk-free method of assassinating one’s perceived enemies and anybody who has the bad luck to be standing near them. Or, as a loyal servant of his corporation, assuring us that smoking is harmless to the health of the third world, and great banks are there to serve the public.
‘What have I learned over the last 50 years? Come to think of it, not much. Just that the morals of the secret world are very like our own.’
The 50th anniversary edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with “Fifty Years Later”, John le Carré’s introduction, will be published by Penguin at £25 on 1 August. © David Cornwell 2013.