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A PERFECT SPY by John le Carre (Knopf: $18.95; 479 pp.)

April 20, 1986|Morton Kamins | Kamins is a free-lance writer and reviewer. and

It's no accident that Proust's name recurs often in this novel, for John le Carre stalks the biggest of literary game here and comes home with his trophy--the masterly welding of an intricate page-turning spy thriller with the infinitely complex exploration of time and a man's memory. "A Perfect Spy" is a great vibrant cornucopia, spilling over with "something for everyone"--indeed something magnificent for everyone--a permanent addition to the canon of English literature.

Magnus Pym, senior partner in the "Firm," double-agent, "perfect spy," has suddenly vanished. In alternating chapters, Le Carre gives us the compellingly plotted search for Pym by his British and Czech masters, the two men who have been his lifelong mentors; and Pym's own story--his last desperate attempt to explore a lifetime of betrayals, to write it out, to order it and so comprehend it.

As with the contents of an old trunk filled with fascinating treasures, Pym is labyrinthine, paradoxical: "Vienna was a divided city like Berlin or your father," he writes to his son. He's a man put together "entirely from bits of other people;" "the Saturday night juggler bounding round the table and spinning one stupid plate after another because he can't bear to let anyone down for one second and so lose their esteem;" who can't rest "until he's touched the love in people, then can't rest until he's hacked his way out of it, the more drastically the better . . . "

A great Daedalian character, Pym, but Le Carre's fecund imagination spawns more. Jack Brotherhood, for instance; the man who brought Pym into the firm and who now finds himself a "half pitied and wholly blamed has-been," devastated by the evidence of Pym's treachery but determined to find him, a man out of step with the bureaucrats who've taken over the craft of "licensed crooks" but who knows that, "Above the line is what you do by the book. Below the line is how you do the job." And there is the brilliant Czech agent Axel, crippled and tormented, who for Pym plays the role of the wise and steady father Pym never had.

Most impressively, there is Rick, Pym's father, a character for the ages, a fabulous con man of Dickensian sweep and energy. "When God was working on him, he could pick up the telephone to anyone even when it was cut off."

One of this novel's many masterstrokes is how convincingly we see Rick--indeed, all the main characters--from Pym's different perspectives over half a century. Not since "A High Wind in Jamaica" has a book caught so truly the distorted perceptions, the mysteries and gaps, of a child's psychology. To Pym the child, Rick is magical, boisterous, a volcanic presence moving unpredictably in and out of Pym's life and a half-step ahead of the law to become the source of a lifetime's painful insecurity. And at the end, Pym finds in Rick a pathetic "willed smallness," whose mantle has passed on leaving him "a naked little man and myself the biggest con I knew." In this odd and tormented relationship between father and son, one senses Le Carre working close to the bone, exorcising personal anguish at the highest level of artistry.

And Le Carre gets everything else right as well. Sparks fly from the supple, highly charged prose. A wealth of sensual detail brings Proust once again to mind; so do the many aphorisms and apercus. You hear, too, dialogue at perfect pitch from even the most minor of actors--an East Indian ticket seller, a loopy old Anglo-Catholic couple, the comical gobbledygook of an American bureaucrat. Meanwhile, in beautifully controlled flashbacks, he roams back and forth from past to present rummaging through time and memory, dancing with ease around land mines of enormous technical difficulties. As you read, you plumb the depths of a man's soul while breathless with suspense.

Of course, Le Carre has never spoon-fed his readers, and he hands you nothing here. The reader must work at it. Revelations come through prisms of knowledge--a hint, at subtle reaction. It's never so simple as a Hitchcock audience knowing more than the characters, or where the audience apprehends solely through the eyes of the sleuth. And how Pym comes finally to be a "traitor"--how the consequences of his past acts lead him to where he does not even have to make a decision about it--has the inexorable logic of tragedy. A lifetime of betrayals brings him to the cold knowledge that "Love is whatever you can still betray. Betrayal can only happen if you love."

Proustian without longueurs, at once vibrantly energetic and full of a hard-won wisdom, "A Perfect Spy" is easily John Le Carre's best book and, I believe, one of the enduring peaks of imaginative literature in our time.

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