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British Novelist John le Carré on the Iraq War, Corporate Power, the Exploitation of Africa and His New Novel, “Our Kind of Traitor”

StoryNovember 25, 2010
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Today, we spend the hour with world-renowned British novelist John le Carré, the pen name of David Cornwell. Le Carré’s writing career spans half a century, during which he has established himself as a master spy writer. His latest novel, his 22nd, is entitled Our Kind of Traitor. David Cornwell worked in the British Secret Services from the late 1950s until the early 1960s, at the height of the Cold War. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became an international best-seller. As the Cold War ended, le Carré continued to write prolifically, shifting focus to the inequities of globalization, unchecked multinational corporate power, and the role national spy services play in protecting corporate interests. “The things that are done in the name of the shareholder are, to me, as terrifying as the things that are done — dare I say it — in the name of God,” le Carré tells Democracy Now! Perhaps best known among his many post-Cold War novels is The Constant Gardener, depicting a pharmaceutical company’s exploitation of unwitting Kenyans for dangerous, sometimes fatal, drug tests. In this rare U.S. interview, le Carré also discusses Tony Blair’s role in the Iraq War, U.S. policy toward Iran, and international money laundering. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: John le Carré is our guest for the hour. That’s actually the pen name of David Cornwell. His writing career spans half a century, during which he established himself as a master spy writer. His latest novel, his 22nd, is called Our Kind of Traitor.

David Cornwell worked in the British Secret Services from the late '50s to the early ’60s, at the height of the Cold War. His third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, became an international best-seller. Le Carré's gritty depiction of the realities of the spy world contrasted sharply with the characters in Ian Fleming’s James Bond series.

This is a clip from the film adaptation of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, starring Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, an alcoholic cynical British spy.

ALEC LEAMAS: [played by Richard Burton] What the hell do you think spies are? Model philosophers measuring everything they do against the word of God or Karl Marx? They’re not. They’re just a bunch of civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives. Do you think they sit like monks in a cell, balancing right against wrong? Yesterday I would have killed Mundt, because I thought him evil and an enemy. But not today. Today he’s evil and my friend. London needs him.

AMY GOODMAN: John le Carré continued writing, expanding with a series featuring his British spymaster George Smiley, including the hit novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. As the Cold War ended, le Carré continued to write prolifically, shifting focus to the inequities of globalization, unchecked multinational corporate power, and the role of spy services in protecting corporate interests.

Perhaps best known among his many post-Cold War novels is The Constant Gardener, depicting a pharmaceutical company’s exploitation of unwitting Kenyans for dangerous, sometimes fatal, drug tests. In this clip, from the film adaptation of The Constant Gardener, an activist, who is later killed by the pharmaceutical corporation, played by Rachel Weisz, confronts a government official, played by Ralph Fiennes, about war.

TESSA QUAYLE: [played by Rachel Weisz] Excuse me? Excuse me?

JUSTIN QUAYLE: [played by Ralph Fiennes] Yeah?

TESSA QUAYLE: Excuse me.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: Yeah, sorry.

TESSA QUAYLE: Sir, I’ve just got one question. I just wondered: Whose map is Britain using when it completely ignores the United Nations and decides to invade Iraq? Or do you think it’s more diplomatic to bend the will of a superpower and politely take part in Vietnam the sequel?

JUSTIN QUAYLE: Well, I can’t speak for Sir Bernard.

TESSA QUAYLE: Oh, I thought that’s why you were here.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: I mean, diplomats have to go where they’re sent.

TESSA QUAYLE: So do Labradors.


AMY GOODMAN: That was Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in The Constant Gardener, as we turn now to our national broadcast exclusive hour with John le Carré about Constant Gardener, about his new novel, Our Kind of Traitor, his antiwar activism in Britain and more.

In the lead-up to the Iraq invasion, John le Carré was a fierce critic of President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. In January 2003, he published a widely read essay called “The United States of America Has Gone Mad.” I asked him to begin by reading an excerpt.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: America has entered one of its periods of historical madness, but this is the worst I can remember: worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam War.

The reaction to 9/11 is beyond anything Osama bin Laden could have hoped for in his nastiest dreams. As in McCarthy times, the freedoms that have made America the envy of the world are being systematically eroded. The combination of compliant US media and vested corporate interests is once more ensuring that a debate that should be ringing out in every town square is confined to the loftier columns of the East Coast press.

The imminent war was planned years before bin Laden struck, but it was he who made it possible. Without bin Laden, the Bush junta would still be trying to explain such tricky matters as how it came to be elected in the first place; Enron; its shameless favouring of the already-too-rich; its reckless disregard for the world’s poor, the ecology and a raft of unilaterally abrogated international treaties. They might also have to be telling us why they support Israel in its continuing disregard for UN resolutions.

But bin Laden conveniently swept all that under the carpet. The Bushies are riding high. Now 88 per cent of Americans want the war, we are told. The US defence budget has been raised by another $60 billion to around $360 billion. A splendid new generation of nuclear weapons is in the pipeline, so we can all breathe easy. Quite what war 88 per cent of Americans think they are supporting is a lot less clear. A war for how long, please? At what cost in American lives? At what cost to the American taxpayer’s pocket? At what cost — because most of those 88 per cent are thoroughly decent and humane people — in Iraqi lives?

How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America’s anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein is one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history. But they swung it. A recent poll tells us that one in two Americans now believe Saddam was responsible for the attack on the World Trade Centre. But the American public is not merely being misled. It is being browbeaten and kept in a state of ignorance and fear. The carefully orchestrated neurosis should carry Bush and his fellow conspirators nicely into the next election.

Those who are not with Mr Bush are against him. Worse, they are the enemy. Which is odd, because I’m dead against Bush, but I would love to see Saddam’s downfall — just not on Bush’s terms and not by his methods. And not under the banner of such outrageous hypocrisy.

The religious cant that will send American troops into battle is perhaps the most sickening aspect of this surreal war-to-be. Bush has an arm-lock on God. And God has very particular political opinions. God appointed America to save the world in any way that suits America. God appointed Israel to be the nexus of America’s Middle Eastern policy, and anyone who wants to mess with that idea is a) anti-Semitic, b) anti-American, c) with the enemy, and d) a terrorist. …

What is at stake is not an imminent military or terrorist threat, but the economic imperative of US growth. What is at stake is America’s need to demonstrate its military power to all of us — to Europe and Russia and China, and poor mad little North Korea, as well as the Middle East; to show who rules America at home, and who is to be ruled by America abroad.

The most charitable interpretation of Tony Blair’s part in all of this is that he believed that, by riding the tiger, he could steer it. He can’t. Instead, he gave it a phoney legitimacy, and a smooth voice. Now I fear, the same tiger has him penned into a corner, and he can’t get out.

It is utterly laughable that, at a time when Blair has talked himself against the ropes, neither of Britain’s opposition leaders can lay a glove on him. But that’s Britain’s tragedy, as it is America’s: as our Governments spin, lie and lose their credibility, the electorate simply shrugs and looks the other way. …

I cringe when I hear my Prime Minister lend his head prefect’s sophistries to this colonialist adventure. His very real anxieties about terror are shared by all sane men. What he can’t explain is how he reconciles a global assault on al-Qaeda with a territorial assault on Iraq. We are in this war, if it takes place, to secure the fig leaf of our special relationship, to grab our share of the oil pot, and because, after all the public hand-holding in Washington and Camp David, Blair has to show up at the altar.

“But will we win, Daddy?”

“Of course, child. It will all be over while you’re still in bed.”


“Because otherwise Mr Bush’s voters will get terribly impatient and may decide not to vote for him.”

“But will people be killed, Daddy?”

“Nobody you know, darling. Just foreign people.”

“Can I watch it on television?”

“Only if Mr Bush says you can.”

“And afterwards, will everything be normal again? Nobody will do anything horrid any more?”

“Hush child, and go to sleep.”

Last Friday a friend of mine in California drove to his local supermarket with a sticker on his car saying: “Peace is also Patriotic”. It was gone by the time he’d finished shopping.

AMY GOODMAN: John le Carré, reading from his essay, “The United States of America Has Gone Mad.” We turn now to our interview with the world-renowned British novelist. I spoke to him in London along with my Democracy Now! colleague Denis Moynihan.

AMY GOODMAN: We are on the road in London, just along the Thames, not far from Parliament, not far from MI5 and MI6, the international and domestic spy agencies here, so it is most relevant to bring you John le Carré, this hour we spend with the foremost spy writer of our time.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Now, it might confuse our audience when I say, “Welcome to Democracy Now!, David Cornwell.” Explain where John le Carré came from.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: Well, I’ve told a lot of lies about that in my time, I have to confess. I began writing when I was still in the British Foreign Service, and it was then understood that even if you wrote about butterfly collecting, you used another name. So the fact that I was in a secret department does not play a part.

Then, I think I decided that I needed three pieces to a name, that they would arrest the “I” and put an accent on the last part. Then the word carré in French has a bunch of ambiguous meanings. A balle carrée, for example, is a dance where the ladies ask the men to dance. Carré at roulette, if you put a numéro carré, you put a counter on each corner of a number. And so it goes on. And I think an homme carré is a little bit a dubious guy. That seemed to me to suit me perfectly at that time.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, in the interests of transparency, we’ll just call you David Cornwell, if that’s OK.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: Just David will do fine.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, we were interested because Channel 4 just said “the last interview” with John le Carré, and yet here we are. Why did you change your mind?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: I didn’t change my mind. The full text with Channel 4 was that that was my last interview in the U.K. And this is the last book about which I intend to give interviews. That isn’t because I’m in any sense retiring. I’ve found that, actually, I’ve said everything I really want to say, outside my books. I would just like — I’m in wonderful shape. I’m entering my 80th year. I just want to devote myself entirely to writing and not to this particular art form of conversation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’re very thankful to be with you today. I want to bring Denis Moynihan into this conversation, my colleague, who invariably has a spy novel in his hand, and it is usually a novel by John le Carré. If he hasn’t read it once, he’s read it three times, and then he’s on to the fourth.

DENIS MOYNIHAN: David, the latest book, your 22nd novel, Our Kind of Traitor, is about — well, I guess, to frame it for our audience, who may not be familiar with your half-century of writing, about half of that time you wrote during the Cold War, and since then you’ve been focusing less on that story and more on the multinational corporate malfeasance and the confluence of kind of corporate interests and government skulduggery. This story, you want to lay it out kind of in broad strokes, the money laundering, the importance of drug money and laundered money in propping up —

JOHN LE CARRÉ: This is really a — it’s a story, and it’s supposed to entertain, and if it doesn’t entertain, there’s no point in the message. The message has — message has got to be carried on the back of the beetle; otherwise, there is none.

So what we have is a young couple. They’re thinking of getting married. They go off and take a holiday in Antigua. They both love tennis. And they’re middle-class. One’s a lawyer. The other is a tutor at Oxford. And they’re playing tennis. Somebody watches them. And all of a sudden, the fellow, Perry, is invited to play tennis with a Russian guy. And from then on — there is purpose behind the invitation. From then on, they are drawn into a world they didn’t know existed. They’re both intelligent, decent, moral people, and they’re faced with the anarchy, in fact, the kind of exported anarchy of post-Cold War Russia. So the Wild East has come to visit them in Antigua. And from then on, they are drawn into an intrigue.

Dima, my Russian character — I don’t spoil the story by telling you this — says he wishes to defect. He has a quarrel with his gang boss, who is the boss of bosses in Russia, and he’s going to get even with him. He’s going to betray him. He’s going to pour out all the secrets about how he launders money on a vast scale on behalf of a collection of Russian brotherhoods, or Vory. Russian crime has been integrated into the — first of all, into the Soviet Union, on a grand scale. It was developed — the crime families were developed in the camps of Siberia. And Dima emerges from that world. He was a bareknuckle gangster, spent a bit of time on Brighton Beach, learned the arts of money laundering, learned to wear suits, learned to speak half-decent English, and settled in Switzerland, and from there operated a vast money laundering scheme.

Now, this isn’t fiction. That part of it isn’t fiction. Money laundering is simply everywhere. On the grand scale, it’s endemic to banking. You have to bear in mind that when Lehman Brothers wasn’t going to function anymore and the big banks weren’t lending to one another, back at that terrible time, $352 billion of illegal money were then tacitly released upon the market, and that was about the only money people were lending to one another. So, money laundering is not some distant fantasy. It’s actually how you handle the profits of extortion, tax evasion, criminal conspiracy and huge quantities of drug money, how you get that into the white sector. And what we are gradually learning from these little exposés that come to light is that there is almost no way of denying people, in the end, the profits of their crime, which is a tragedy. And it’s also a frightful annoyance, because we pay vast sums of money across the way here to agencies that are supposed to stop money laundering. Doesn’t happen.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, you’ve got a column right there, bringing this right up —

JOHN LE CARRÉ: I have a column right here. I wish I had the figures in my head. This is from the International Herald Tribune, and I guess that means it also comes from The New York Times, of Monday, September the 13th, not so long ago. Barclays, a British bank, paid $298 million “for conducting transactions with Cuba, Iran, Libya, Myanmar and Sudan in violation of United [States] trade sanctions. Barclays was discovered to have systematically disguised the movement of hundreds of millions of dollars through wire transfers that were stripped of the critical information required by law. …

“Last May, when ABN Amro Bank (now largely part of the Royal Bank of Scotland) was caught funneling money for the benefit of Iran, Libya and Sudan, it was fined $500 million, and no one went to jail. Last December, Credit Suisse Group agreed to pay a $536 million fine for doing the same. In recent years, Union Bank of California, American Express Bank International, BankAtlantic and Wachovia have all been caught moving huge sums of drug money, but no one went to jail. The banks just admitted to criminal conduct and paid the government a cut of their profits.”

The thing is, it is very undemocratic, because if you or I go to one of these banks along here somewhere with a few thousand dollars in a briefcase, if I’m a Brit and do it, I have to give a really thorough explanation. Bank manager may call in the police. I have to produce my passport. If I want to open an account, I have to produce a utilities bill and all of that. But, if Mr. Orloff comes to a bank here and says, “I am from Russia. I have millions and millions of dollars, please. And here is a letter from a reputable lawyer in Moscow. And here is evidence that I run hotels, casinos, whatnot,” bank manager says, “What are you doing for lunch?” And we’re away. So, the bigger the sum, the easier the crime. Now, that is of course something that afflicts us through life. But it’s the case here.

AMY GOODMAN: And the critics — I know you don’t read reviews, but the critics who say, “Oh, come on. This is so exaggerated. The legitimate economy does not rest on the illegitimate one, the illegal one.”

JOHN LE CARRÉ: Well, alas, those critics don’t read their own newspapers, and nor perhaps have they noticed that a former head of MI5, our security service, who was translated to the House of Lords, was recently denied the senior post on a security committee on account of her connections with oligarchs in the Ukraine. These oligarchs were supposedly connected with criminal conspiracy.

We also have a charming case, which we look back on with embarrassment, where a leading member of the Rothschild family and our present chancellor of the Exchequer — that’s finance minister — and the éminence grise of the Labour Party at that time, Lord Mandelson, were all found holidaying together off the coast of Corfu, sitting on the boat of a man called Deripaska, who at that time, I believe, was wanted in the United States on money laundering charges. So we have a certain amount of evidence before us which you would think would silence critics who say we’re all in perfect shape.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you read the beginning of Our Kind of Traitor?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: “At seven o’clock of a Caribbean morning, on the island of Antigua, one Peregrine Makepiece, otherwise known as Perry, an all-around amateur athlete of distinction and until recently tutor in English literature at a distinguished Oxford college, played three sets of tennis against a muscular, stiff-backed, bald, brown-eyed Russian man of dignified bearing in his middle fifties called Dima. How this match came about was quickly the subject of intense examination by British agents professionally disposed against the workings of chance. Yet the events leading up to it were on Perry’s side blameless.

“The dawning of his thirtieth birthday three months previously had triggered a life-change in him that had been building up for a year or more without his being aware of it. Seated head in hands at eight o’clock in the morning in his modest Oxford rooms, after a seven-mile run that had done nothing to ease his sense of calamity, he had searched his soul to know just what the first third of his natural life had achieved, apart from providing him with an excuse for not engaging in the world beyond the city’s dreaming spires. …

“Last term he had delivered a series of lectures on George Orwell under the title 'A Stifled Britain?' and his rhetoric had alarmed him. Would Orwell have believed it possible that the same overfed voices which had haunted him in the 1930s, the same crippling incompetence, addiction to foreign wars and assumptions of entitlement, were happily in place in 2009?

“Receiving no response from the blank student faces staring up at him, he had supplied it for himself: no, Orwell would emphatically not have believed it. Or if he had, he would have taken to the streets. He would have smashed some serious glass.”

AMY GOODMAN: John le Carré. We’ll be back with our exclusive hour with the world-renowned British novelist in a minute. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: The theme from the BBC production of John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, composed and conducted by Geoffrey Burgon. He died September 21st, two days after we conducted our exclusive national broadcast hour with David Cornwell in London. I interviewed him with my Democracy Now! colleague Denis Moynihan.

AMY GOODMAN: We are not far from MI5 and MI6 right now, which takes us way back in time. For our audience who may not be so familiar with your history, in fact, you did work for the MI5 and MI6.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: I worked for one and then for the other, yes. And I suppose that that was nearly half a century ago. So, to regard me as an expert on espionage is absurd, but — on modern espionage. But —

AMY GOODMAN: These are the spy agencies of Britain.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: These are the spy agencies of Britain, yes. MI5 is responsible for domestic security, but it has no executive powers, unlike your FBI. SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, also has no executive powers and operates abroad on CIA lines, but with a tiny percentage of the budget and a tiny percentage of the personnel. Unlike the CIA, it is not also in competition with 21 other intelligence agencies within your own country, or whatever the number is, something like that.

And I suppose that if I could generalize about my work in intelligence in those days, for better or worse, we counted ourselves an elite with a very considerable responsibility: to speak truth to power, like good journalists, that whatever we came upon, however offensive it was to those in power, we told it straight. And what I fear I have seen in the run-up to the Iraq War in this country is the politicization of intelligence to fit the political intentions of our masters. And to my mind, that was a terrible moment in the history, the visible history, of intelligence work in this country, where the intelligence service itself became effectively co-author and signatory to the so-called dodgy dossier, which — on the strength of which Colin Powell was able to present a dire picture of the threat from Iraq, which turned out to be untrue.

DENIS MOYNIHAN: January of 2003, one of the largest antiwar marches in world history happened just behind us here.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: I took part in it, yeah.

DENIS MOYNIHAN: And what are your reflections now?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: Well, I think that my anger still stands. I can’t understand that Blair has an afterlife at all. It seems to me that any politician who takes his country to war under false pretenses has committed the ultimate sin. I think that a war in which we refuse to accept the body count of those that we kill is also a war of which we should be ashamed. We’ve always got to be careful of that. I think that — I wasn’t speaking as a prophet, I was just speaking as an angry citizen, I suppose. I think it’s true that we’ve caused irreparable damage in the Middle East. I think we shall pay for it for a long time.

One of the problems, surely, is that victims never forget, and the winners do. And they forget very quickly. If people knew basically, for example, what we had done in Iran when we ousted Mosaddegh through the CIA and the Secret Service here across the way and installed the Shah and trained his ghastly secret police force in all the black arts, the SAVAC, if people understood the extent to which we had humiliated Iran, then they would understand the later developments in Iran and Iran’s posture now. If people would look at the map and see the extent to which Iran is encircled by nuclear powers, they wouldn’t take it perhaps quite so seriously that Iran is seeking to arm itself with — if it is — with nuclear weapons.

I remain terrified of the capacity of the media, the capacity of spin doctors, here and abroad, particularly the United States media, to perpetuate false lies, perpetuate lies. Mussolini, I think, defined fascism as the moment when you couldn’t put a cigarette paper between political and corporate power. He assumed, when he offered that definition, that media power was already his. But I worry terribly that the absence of serious critical argument is going to produce a new kind of fanaticism, the new simplicities that are as dangerous as the ones which caused us to march against Iraq and as misunderstood.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk, David Cornwell, aka John le Carré, about what’s happening with Tony Blair with his new book out, with event after event being canceled, eggs being thrown at him, the anger on the streets?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: Well, I don’t know what the level of protest was in the United States by the time you went to war in Iraq, but here I think an aggregate of about 3 million people marched in Britain. The first march, in which I took part, must have numbered something like a million. And so, the — and I remember we stopped, this huge crowd, which was being really very crudely manhandled by the police at the edges. We stopped. We were all wedged together and looking into Downing Street, where the prime minister’s residency is. And nobody seemed to speak, but a kind of feral roar of popular will rose. And I tried to imagine what it must have been like for Blair sitting inside that building and hearing that sound. It was like a huge cry that goes up at a football game or something like that, where you actually — it is no longer verbalized. It’s just this animal seething noise. And I think it will always be remembered of him that he took us to war, as most people perceive, on the strength of lies.

Now you have to bear in mind also that we are creating what American media are referring to as a deep state in this country. That is, I think I read, indeed, in The Washington Post that 890,000-odd Americans who are not in government service are cleared for top secret and above. I don’t know to what extent that situation is replicated here, but more and more I have the feeling that the power of the counterterror market is expanding and creating a wider — an ever-widening circle of those who are initiated, indoctrinated, part of the security structure, whether directly or indirectly, and those who are not. So then it makes it possible, as at the time, for example, of the parliamentary vote on whether we should go to war in Iraq — it makes it possible for a senior MP to take a neophyte aside and say, “If you’d seen the papers that I’ve seen, you would know which lobby to go into when the vote comes up.” And this suggestion that there are those in the know and those not in the know, and that those not in the know are second-class citizens, is extremely dangerous to society. And I think we have to address it all the time.

We have no idea. We don’t have a spokesman for these intelligence services, either one of them, either one of the three main intelligence services. We have inspired leaks. We have people who seem to speak with authority. But when somebody tells us suddenly that we’ve gone on to red alert, and there are tanks outside London airport, or whatever it is, we don’t know by what process this definition reaches us. It’s very easy inside an intelligence service to develop a capsule mentality. You live inside the bubble. The one thing you begin to lose is common sense, a sense of balance. And particularly when it’s men, all together, men in a room. I always think that was the awful secret of the Bay of Pigs catastrophe. It was actually the guys telling each other who they were, and they were frightfully clever men, and they’d done amazing things, some of them horrible things, in Vietnam, and they were together, and they were conspiring, and there was nobody there to say, “Boys, just take it down a bit. Just step back. Is this sensible? Do we really believe the Cubans are going to rush down and embrace our troops when they land on the beach?”

AMY GOODMAN: It’s seven years after the invasion of Iraq. You’ve moved from Blair in this country, and in the United States it’s gone from Bush to Obama, who then expanded the War in Afghanistan. What is your assessment of the United States?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: I suffer from the same frustration that every decent American suffers from. That is, that you begin to wonder whether decent liberal instincts, decent humanitarian instincts, can actually penetrate the right-wing voice, get through the steering of American opinion by the mass media. I don’t know what the percentage now is, but I believe it’s still something like 65 or 70% of Americans believe that Saddam was involved in the Twin Towers. Am I right in that? Something like that. Well, we haven’t gone as far down that road yet, but we do have pretty horrendous manipulation of the media by our various press barons, and we have enormous intrusions into our domestic affairs by the Rupert Murdoch empire. I find that very scary — you know, former Australian, now an American, dictating to Brits what they should be thinking. I find that very, very, very unsettling, and I oppose it wherever I can. Therefore, as I say, I share the frustration, I think, of very many Americans, that when something is clear common sense, when there’s a great humanitarian need, somehow or another, it’s the conservative voice, the orthodox voice, the chauvinistic or the patriotic voice, that outshouts other people’s decent thinking processes. I thinks it’s crudely put, but it’s a very crude situation, that it’s — the feeling, I think, that many of us have of Obama is that the good things he would really like to do are being frustrated, and now his own Democratic Party is not helping or supporting him and that the corporate and other lobbies are tying his hands. I think that’s the most charitable perception that one can make.

AMY GOODMAN: David, would you go to one of Tony Blair’s events?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: No, I wouldn’t, nor would I buy the book. At the last election in which he stood, I was invited by The Guardian newspaper to interview him. And after much thought, I declined, because I did not see how I could lay a glove on him. And I’ve asked some pretty heavy-hitting journalists what questions they would have asked, in retrospect, that might have unseated him a little, that might have thrown him. And they said, almost with one voice, there’s nothing you can get passed him, there’s no way of doing it.

I think I would have asked him one question, perhaps, and I’d have asked it repeatedly. I’d have asked him about his faith, because we were told, when journalists asked about Blair’s faith, the reply was, “We don’t do God here.” Well, of course, he does do God, and he reports that his actions have been put before God and confirmed, as if somehow God has signed a chit for him. I think that the question of somebody’s religious faith is absolutely central to what we think of them, if we are members of the electorate. We have to know. If it is, for example, somebody’s conviction, widely held among Christians in the United States, that the second coming of Christ is not possible 'til the Greater Israel is established, we need to know that. That's an important political perception. In Blair’s case, I would have asked him that question, and I’d have pressed him on it. I’d have asked him whether God had ever restrained him. I find it very strange that we elect a politician who then claims to serve a higher deity who guides him: “I did what I believe is right.” Well, will you tell us, please, how that relates to the Christian ethic? Do you believe in war first and negotiation afterwards? Exactly how does this work?

And the second question I would ask him is the really painful one, which I could not have asked if I hadn’t gone on my own journey. Have you ever seen what happens when a grenade goes off in a school? Do you really know what you’re doing when you order shock and awe? Are you prepared to kneel beside a dying soldier and tell him why he went to Iraq, or why he went to any war? I think that if anything has happened to Europe since 1945 that defines it, it is collectively Europeans do not believe in war anymore, until it comes as an absolute last resort, and then they’re going to do it rather badly. The United States, I think, still sees war as a necessary part of its existence. It’s impossible to maintain the military on that scale, a Pentagon on that scale, without turning it over. You’ve got to have officers who are experienced in command and control. You’ve got to have troops who have been bloodied. So, we were, in that sense, at odds. I was, as a European. I was at odds with the whole notion of a preemptive strike. And I think many Europeans have that in common, of course with very many Americans, too, feel the same. So I would have tried to challenge him in that area.

And as I think I said earlier in the interview, for me, there are very few absolutes about human behavior. But I think a leader who does take his country to war under false pretenses is simply not an acceptable person. I don’t think that we should be weighing the rights and wrongs of that. It seems to me to be quite simply wrong.

AMY GOODMAN: John le Carré, the British spy novelist. If you’d like a copy of today’s interview, the DVD, you can go to our website at We’ll continue our interview in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: The theme music from The Deadly Affair, composed by Quincy Jones. The film was an adaptation of John le Carré’s first novel, Call for the Dead. Now John le Carré has written his 22nd. It’s called Our Kind of Traitor.

This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Denis Moynihan, as we go back to our national broadcast exclusive hour in London with John le Carré.

AMY GOODMAN: Can we talk about corporations, because it’s an issue you have taken on in your later books in a huge way? And interestingly, particularly corporate power in Africa —


AMY GOODMAN: — whether we’re talking The Constant Gardener, which took place in Kenya, or we’re talking The Mission Song, which took place in Congo, in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: Absolutely, yeah, yeah. Well, it’s where I have seen globalization at work on the ground. It’s a pretty ugly sight. It’s a boardroom fantasy. What it actually means is the exploitation of very cheap labor, very often the ecological disaster that comes with it, the creation of mega-cities, the depletion of agrarian cultures and tribal cultures. It’s about — the effect of globalization, again, where I have seen it, has been negative, as far as the local population is concerned. It’s enriched the very few in the country where it takes place. And it has totally dismayed the inhabitants otherwise. So, ask me what corporate power means to me, it means the ability of the individual to sacrifice his own instincts, his own decent instincts, in the name of the corporation, that people will do things to — on behalf of the corporation, to a group of people, which they would never do to their next-door neighbor, so that all the decent humanity seems to be set aside the moment they walk through the corporate doors.

In The Constant Gardener, in particular, it was quite extraordinary to go to Basel, to get among the young pharmaceutical executives in a private way, promise them that I would never tell — divulge their names, and listen to them pouring out their rage against the work they were doing, at the people who were making them do it. But they were still taking the penny, and they were still doing what they were doing. They were still contributing to the invention of diseases. They were fiddling with compounds, turn them into new patents, when they actually had no greater effect than the previous patent. They were joining the lie that every new compound put on the market cost six or eight hundred million dollars, which is pretty good nonsense when you think that many of the main health life-saving drugs that go on the market have been developed, for instance, in your own federal laboratories and then sold off by some strange method to the pharmaceutical companies, so they didn’t do the hard work themselves very often.

So, when we think, supposedly with pride, that many corporations have the budgets, which are larger — have budgets which are larger than many small nations, I find that most alarming. And, of course, in our country, we’re up against the fact that huge corporations are effective here, control the super markets, whatever they do, and they pay virtually no tax. We’re back to how they launder their money, or, if it’s a more polite way of saying it, how they apply sophisticated taxation arrangements so that they don’t pay tax.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us a thumbnail sketch of The Constant Gardener?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: It’s a young fellow in the Foreign Office, born into the clover, Eton-educated, a sense of political responsibility, a little bit of a frozen child, stiff parents, no love in his early life, falls in love with a beautiful, idealistic young woman, and she marries him. It’s almost she who does it. And they go off to Kenya, and she engages in charitable work and comes upon evidence that a big pharmaceutical company is using a bunch of people in a village in Africa, in Kenya, as human guinea pigs. They sign the consent forms. They don’t know what they’re signing. They’re bullied into it by the local representatives of the pharmaceutical company. Everything is outsourced. Everything is given away to other people, so that the company itself is never directly responsible. And she becomes very involved in this. She takes a stand, and she is murdered. He, who adores her, comes to the conclusion that he must take up her message and take up her fight, and carries it on. And in the end, romantically — I’m nothing, if not a romantic, in some respects — in the end he dies, as part of the mission, and you may say that he joins her, makes a similar sacrifice. And so, they, both of them, did the decent thing against the most anonymous and horrific kind of threat, which is one of sort of untouchable corporate power.

The things that are done in the name of the shareholder are, to me, as terrifying as the things that are done — dare I say it — in the name of God. Montesquieu said, “There have never been so many civil wars as in the Kingdom of God.” And I begin to feel that’s true. The shareholder is the excuse for everything. And, to me — I’m not suggesting we make some sudden lurch into socialism, that isn’t the case at all. I think it’s more to do with the exercise of individual conscience.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s play a clip of Constant Gardener.

TESSA QUAYLE: [played by Rachel Weisz] How are you? How are you?

JUSTIN QUAYLE: [played by Ralph Fiennes] We can’t involve ourselves in their lives, Tessa. There are millions of people. They all need help.

TESSA QUAYLE: You know me well enough to know that I’m not going to take “no” for an answer.

Will you believe me if I tell you that that poor girl over there is being murdered?

KIOKO: [played by Donald Apiyo] We know about your wife, Mr. Quayle.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: I don’t quite follow.

KIOKO: For a diplomat, you’re not a very good liar.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: Well, I haven’t risen very high.

TESSA QUAYLE: Stop looking at me like that. I’m going to have a baby in a week.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: You’re beautiful.

TESSA QUAYLE: I love you.

SANDY WOODROW: [played by Danny Huston] We’re getting reports. A white woman found earlier this morning. Dead.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: You think it might be Tessa?

UNIDENTIFIED: This way, they took away the files, papers, computers.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: Tess thought she was being watched.

I failed her. I have to finish what she started.

UNIDENTIFIED: You’ll never find them. They will find you.

UNIDENTIFIED: They want you silenced.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: They killed my wife.

UNIDENTIFIED: Be a good chap and leave this to us.

SANDY WOODROW: Don’t try to play detective.

TIM DONOHUE: [played by Donald Sumpter] Go home and live.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: But I don’t have a home. Tessa was my home.

UNIDENTIFIED: There is a TB epidemic coming. It will affect the entire world. Billions and billions of dollars are waiting to be earned.

LORBEER: [played by Pete Postlethwaite] Big pharmaceuticals, they’re right up there with the arms dealers.

JUSTIN QUAYLE: Payoffs, cover-ups, unmarked graves.

UNIDENTIFIED: Are you crazy?

LORBEER: These people, they kill anybody.

SANDY WOODROW: Poor man seems to have convinced himself there was a conspiracy in which we are all complicit.

TIM DONOHUE: There’s a contract out on you. You’ll never know who ordered the hit. That’s the way it works. It’s a corporate matter.

AMY GOODMAN: That was a clip of Constant Gardener. We mentioned Congo and The Mission Song earlier, and you just mentioned it again, but I do want to ask if you’d simply describe the nut of that story, because the story of Congo and Eastern Congo is one that is rarely told, yet millions of people have died.


AMY GOODMAN: And the devastation of the environment has been just horrifying. You did choose to go there and write a novel about it.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: I did choose to go there, and I was escorted by a wonderful American man, Jason Stearns, who is a dedicated student of Africa and a lover of Africa, and also Michela Wrong, who had written nonfiction books about Africa. And we agreed we would make a three, and we would go — we went, first of all, to Rwanda, and from Rwanda we went by jeep then into Eastern Congo, and we stayed in Bukavu. I think we were in Bukavu for about, I don’t know, eight or nine days, and I think there were two or three riots there while we were there.

And the tragedy of Congo is almost — it is appalling. It isn’t really — it isn’t the Congo’s fault even. Congo has become the battleground for other people’s wars, repeatedly. Congo is cursed with amazing mineral resources — diamonds, coltan, now, I believe, up in the northeast of Congo, oil even. God help them, because without any civil society to function, they have been exploited, not simply in terms of boy soldiers, awful gang wars that sweep through the jungle, mass rape as a military weapon, they’ve been subjected to every hell on Earth, these poor people.

And meanwhile, don’t think that Africans are disposed to corruption where we are not, so to speak. Actually, most of the corruption that has taken place in Congo on a vast scale is Western-driven. So there are something like 80 or 90 “airlines” — in quotes — registered in Congo, and these simply belong to tiny exploitative companies that harness boy soldiers and kids to dig out the diamonds or the coltan, whatever it may be, and ship it out of Congo without paying duty or anything of that sort. Without paying royalties to anyone is theft. And Congo is being exploited by everybody on account of these reasons, in addition to providing the battleground for other people’s wars.

AMY GOODMAN: As we wrap up, I wanted to ask you about the writing process and why writing is so important to you.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: Well, it’s — I think the first process, for me, of writing is making — making order out of chaos, out of such a convergence of experiences and so many insoluble things that I’ve seen in my life, to be able to draw a line, to tell a fable which illustrates them, which entertains, and which delivers, even if it’s a sad one, some kind of resolution, is, for me, if you will, a catharsis, a therapy. I think also, in the making of character, I feel completely happy. It always seems to me that the excitement of people is the possibilities of their character — who are you? We don’t know each other, but I could imagine you could be this person, you could be that person. And in my book, you’re that person. I don’t plot. I don’t make what you’re supposed to do in writing schools, the flow charts on how I will proceed. I try to get — as in this case, I get two innocent people into a Hitchcockian muddle and make them fight their way out. But from scene to scene, they have to lead me. And that’s — it’s like asking somebody whether they’re musical or why they’re musical. To me, that is the whole of life. I can’t put it differently.

I just want to — I want to leave the public stage, insofar as I’ve ever been on it, and I would now — I’m fit and resolved, and I’ve got a wonderful family, and I just want to spend the rest of my time doing what I do best, which is writing. I love being an entertainer. I love being a storyteller. I don’t think there is a story unless it provokes a little, unless it engages. I don’t think there’s such a thing as entertaining escapism. Not for me. I think there is entertaining involvement, and that’s what I try to do.

DENIS MOYNIHAN: And do you write with a pen?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: I do write with a pen. I’m not advertising this one, because the cap flies off all the time, and actually I’m reduced to pasting them together. I write only with a pen. I’ve learned to operate a computer to communicate with my children, because they won’t communicate with me in any other medium, but otherwise I write entirely with a pen. And I have an immensely attentive, gifted, tactful wife, who loves to type the stuff out, gives it back to me, and watches bemused as I rip it up again and give it back to her. And that goes on. That’s our relationship.

DENIS MOYNIHAN: I think we approached you first for an interview, perhaps about eight or nine months ago, when you were in the midst of writing Our Kind of Traitor.


DENIS MOYNIHAN: And your agent said he absolutely doesn’t communicate with people like us while you’re writing.

JOHN LE CARRÉ: Well, I’m sure it was a mistake.

DENIS MOYNIHAN: So the cloistering yourself on the cliffs of Cornwall, or wherever you happen to be writing, is that an important part of your process?

JOHN LE CARRÉ: Yes. I mean, for some books, I’ve traveled a lot, and I was very much driven by Graham Greene’s dictum that if you’re reporting on human misery — Amy, you know this far better than I. If you’re reporting on human misery, you do well to share it. And that was a principle that came to me late. I started writing books that were set abroad, like The Honourable Schoolboy and so on. I really thought that although the thought horrified me and I have no natural courage whatever, I should see war, so I went off to Cambodia, and I went off and actually I became the protected child of the war correspondents, and I was very fortunate about that. So, by travel, by talking, by listening, above all, in the places where I go to — or as it was, East Congo, or wherever the books take me — then I fill up my rucksack, my backpack. And then I like to take everything, all my scraps of paper and my memories, down to Cornwall and sort them out there. So, it’s engagement, escape, engagement, escape. I think, again, it’s very similar to a journalist’s life, except nobody checks my story out. I don’t have to tell — I don’t have to tell a small truth. I just have to — I have to be looking for the big truth.

AMY GOODMAN: John le Carré, the pen name for David Cornwell. That does it for our broadcast. If you’d like a copy, you can go to our website at Special thanks to my colleague Denis Moynihan.

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