When you think of good travel writing, chances are that you think of the canonised masters, as is the case with everything. Robert Byron, Eric Newby, Bruce Chatwin, Peter Matthiessen—and the relatively new Bill Bryson. As with genres in any art form, we tend to place the highest importance on those who touched upon its most universal aspects. Shouldn’t good art, on the contrary, be a function of the way it conveyed the felt experience of its artist?
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Former spy and novelist extraordinaire John le Carre, who died yesterday aged 89, was a master of deconstruction. Writing of espionage and murky international plots as he witnessed them working for the MI6, le Carre often transports the reader to an unlikely corner of the world—be it Moscow, Berlin or Nairobi. Deconstructing the commercial-travel charms of his setting, the narrator in most of his books often does more than describing the place, sometimes even eschewing it altogether—opting to convey the time of the place instead. Why else would he write of Bonn, which is known for its botanical gardens, Beethoven and red wines, thus:
“For most months, Bonn is not a place of seasons; the climate is all indoors, a climate of headaches, warm and flat like bottled water, a climate of waiting, of bitter tastes taken from the slow river, of fatigue and reluctant growth, and the air is an exhausted wind fallen on the plain, and the dusk when it comes is nothing but a darkening of the day’s mist, a lighting of tube lamps in the howling streets.” (A Small Town in Germany, 1968)
The spy thriller is a rather catchy genre, and the bait lies in the fact that it is travel writing in guise—you get the bleakness and moodiness for free. Modern TV has cashed in on travel lodestone plenty, with there being a spurt in TV and streaming series where spies and assassins jet from Paris to Bucharest to Barcelona to St Petersburg to Istanbul to Cairo as if they were playing Snakes and Ladders. I don’t know about the others, but for me, a lot of the genre’s visual charm—even in the books—lies in the locations. What we cannot live, we live vicariously—something that we have got rather used to in the pandemic.
However, in le Carre, formulae and tropes are by and large retired. There isn't much of characters getting off luxury trains at the last minute to avoid being murdered in cold blood, deadly games of Baccarat, exotic locations stuck in the past, or the mystique of the Orient and the Middle-East. Le Carre instead imbues the places of his novels with the same moral ambiguity that he does their governments, spy circles and secret services.
Which is what le Carre does with Panama, calling it a 'Casablanca without heroes' in The Tailor of Panama, where he is said to have undone all the conventions of the spy novel. Le Carre is said to have visited the country that forms the isthmus between North America and South America a good five times. The novel follows Harry Pendel, a convict in hiding who spies for the British government under the appearance of a tailor for the moneyed class. In The Spy who Came in from the Cold, Carre scratches out a picture of Berlin in the Cold War that is a far cry from its modern face of a hip, cosmopolitan metropolis:
"Leamas went to the window and waited, in front of him the road and to either side the Wall, a dirty, ugly thing of breeze blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with cheap yellow light, like the backdrop for a concentration camp. East and west of the Wall lay the unrestored part of Berlin, a half-world of ruin, drawn in two dimensions, crags of war." (The Spy who Came in from the Cold, 1963)
Read: The Magic of Morocco
It wasn't just the Moscows, Zagrebs and Hamburgs where the events of le Carre's books occurred. London made frequent appearances in books such as Smiley's People, A Legacy of Spies and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. This illustrated map by Mike Hall lays out the familiar London haunts of le Carre's novels (find the pdf version here):
The seclusionist allure of the English coast preferred by Magnus Pym—said to be heavily based on le Carre himself—is explored quite deliciously in A Perfect Spy, which some believe is the late novelist’s finest and 'truest' book yet. Pym mysteriously arrives in town on a “blustery October morning,” on a day it seems to have been “deserted by its inhabitants”. The plot moves to the Czech Republic (for reasons better not disclosed lest I spill out spoilers)—to the little town of Strakonice, which is “more famous for its manufacture of motorcycles and Oriental fezzes than for any great cultural gem”. A le Carre novel is anti-travel writing at its very best.
As for inspiration—le Carre was himself a spy for the British Government, which was where his piercing inward gaze at the world of espionage came from. Left motherless while still a toddler, le Carre, whose real name was David Cornwell, went on to study languages in Switzerland at the University of Berne. He worked for MI5 interrogating Czech defectors, graduating to serving in Germany in the Cold War. Le Carre went on to write for close to 60 years, his ‘travel writing’ laying bare the vulnerabilities of his settings—a pharma scam in Nairobi and a corrupt geopolitical maze in Panama and trouble brewing in Chechnya, Israel and Rwanda—much like his literary precursor, Graham Greene.