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Book Review: In John Le Carré’s Swan Song, Commitment, Betrayal and a Love Affirmed

'Silverview' is also about the protagonist's perpetual flight — from his Nazi father, from his Polish communist past and finally from the British secret service that he had once so loyally served.

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In many of his novels, especially his more recent ones, John le Carré is concerned with flight – flight from all that is immoral and evil, flight from the secret world of intelligence gathering that scaffolds evil and violence-prone political regimes. Think of the end of Agent Running in the Field where Florence and Ed flee from the shackles of the British secret service. In A Legacy of Spies, Smiley, himself, has fled to Freiburg to escape from a Brexit-torn Britain.

Silverview – the novel that le Carré finished just before he died in December 2020 – is also about flight. Edward Avon, one of the protagonists of this complex but short novel, is in perpetual flight – from his Nazi father, from his Polish communist past and finally from the British secret service that he had once so loyally served.

Another of le Carré’s enduring themes is love – love betrayed and love affirmed. Betrayal is best exemplified by the love between Bill Haydon and Jim Prideaux in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the eventual betrayal of it by Haydon; and there is the anguished relationship of George and Ann Smiley which runs like a subtext right through the Karla trilogy. In Silverview, there is no betrayal of love, only its powerful and poignant affirmation. This occurs at many levels in the novel and also between several characters, major and minor.

Julian Lawndsley has fled from his lucrative City job to set himself up as a bookshop owner in a small windswept town in East Anglia. There, without his quite willing it, he becomes embroiled in Edward Avon’s secret life. But in the process, he also discovers love. Lily, Edward’s daughter, opens up to him and declares to him at the very end of the book that she has no more secrets from him. They are united and their love and trust liberate them from all that is secret and sordid in the world around them.

Edward Avon whose activities are at the heart of the plot and its unravelling is easily drawn into the web of love and not always with human beings. He, as one of the persons who ran him when he was a secret agent declares, is a causes person – anti-fascism, communism, anti-communism and finally peace. But he is also drawn to human beings and enamoured by them. After a year at Gdansk, Edward (code name Florian) realized that “the Communist message was the biggest con since the invention of religion.” Back in Paris, he “whispered” his fall from innocence “to Ania in bed” – Ania “Marvellous girl…Ballerina, Polish exile. Gorgeous to look at, all the guts in the world, and adored Florian to bits.”

It was through Ania that Edward came to be recruited by British intelligence. Ania remained loyal to Edward and when the latter was being investigated, she refused to succumb to the pressures of an interrogation. Edward was played back into Poland as an agent. When he returned, his networks blown, he is taken over by Deborah, “pretty much the Service’s Queen of Europe in those days” and known through family ties in every secret corridor in Whitehall. Edward fell for Deborah and the latter breaking “every rule in the book” took him to bed. They married and settled in Deborah’s ancestral pile, Silverview, at the edge of an obscure town in East Anglia. Lily was their only daughter.

This did not halt Edward’s career as a spy. He was recalled by the Service and sent to Bosnia where “Six tiny nations [were] squabbling over Big Daddy Tito’s Will. All fighting for God, all wanting to be top dog, and nobody to like. Everyone in the right as usual and everyone fighting wars their grandfathers had fought two hundred years ago and lost.” Into this turmoil of disintegrating Yugoslavia, Edward was thrown in because in a past life he had taught in Croatia’s Zagreb University and he spoke immaculate Croatian. He was a hit with the Serbs with his cover as a relief worker but his sympathies were with the Bosniaks, the Muslims – the victims. And Edward or Florian loved a victim. His grouse was that the intelligence he was gleaning from the Serbs was not getting fast enough to the Bosniaks to protect themselves from the next onslaught and that the intelligence was being shared with the Americans.

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In the meantime, Edward had “fallen in love with an entire unaligned family in the hills.” The family was “secular, which for Edward is practically mandatory, but deeply rooted in Muslim traditions and working for an Arab NGO.” The family lived in a village which like “any other Bosniak village [was] stuck in a fold of bare hills a day’s drive out of Sarajevo.” It had a mosque and two churches, one Catholic and one Orthodox – “and sometimes the church bells got mixed up with the muezzin, and nobody cared, which Florian thought was just wonderful.” This is “the way Bosnian communities managed to live for five hundred years before everyone went barking mad.”

The family that Edward befriended consisted of a Jordanian doctor, Faisal, trained in France; his wife Salma who had studied in the universities of Alexandria and Durham; and their 13-year-old son studying in Amman but with his parents during the school holidays. Faisal and Salma ran a medical centre, out of an abandoned monastery, under the auspices of a non-aligned Saudi-funded NGO.

One day Serb troops descended on the village and massacred its inhabitants including Faisal and his son. Edward arrived at the nick of time and saved Salma by speaking in Serb to the colonel leading the Serbs. The colonel gave Salma to Edward like a gift. Thus started Edward’s last and most enduring love affair.

Back in Silverview, Edward discovers that Deborah, even though she is terminally ill with cancer, is now heading, from home, an intelligence section whose target is the Muslim world. Unable to accept this, Edward begins to spy on his wife and hacks into her computer. Deborah suspects a leak and alerts the top brass of British intelligence. Thus begins the investigation to find the source of the leak. All clues point to Edward and the process begins to pin him down and bring him in for interrogation. Edward knows he is being tracked and with Salma’s help escapes the clutches of his hunters. The readers are left in the dark about where he flees. He has fled with his best kept secret: his love for Salma.

Is there a moral to this typically le Carré multi-layered tale? Who is le Carré writing about? What is Edward fleeing from, who is he betraying? Hasn’t he already been betrayed in innumerable ways by the countless causes he upheld? He has nothing left any more to betray and he himself is not afraid of betrayal. He tells Julian when he bids adieu to him: “There are people we must never betray, whatever the cost. I do not belong to that category.” He clings to love – what in another novel, le Carré called the “last illusion of an illusionless man.”

In the last years of his life, le Carré sought and secured for himself the citizenship of Ireland. His flight from Britain which had begun when he had fled to Berne as a lad of 16 was thus complete. He could sing unhindered for freedom and human dignity.

Rudrangshu Mukherjee is chancellor and professor of History at Ashoka University,