In John Le Carre’s spy novels he illustrates the lives of spies as they grapple with the physical dangers and the moral qualms and ambiguities of espionage. Mostly set during the Cold War, Le Carre’s psychological thrillers are different from the swashbuckling, adrenaline-pumping, all action Bond ones, even though Le Carre’s spies and 007 are all engaged in Her Majesty’s Service.
The travails of Edward Snowden draw parallels with Le Carre’s characters and situations, and even though we live in a post Cold War era, countries still spy on each other and agents and double agents are still faced with the moral ambiguities that come with taking decisions or partaking in actions that hug the ethical borderlines and fly in the face of everything one knows. Like Ygritte was always wont to say, “You know nothing, John Snow.”
As Edward Snowden revealed, Big Brother is watching and listening and we might as well all be living in a matrix. In The Matrix by the former Wachowski ‘brothers’ (one has recently had a sex change) the government of the day (alien machines infact) are so plugged in that just expressing fear or surprise could set off alarm bells and alert the authorities. In today’s matrix, the NSA and Prism and GCHQ, and all the other acronyms are so plugged in they can flip on the microphone in your android phone, let alone mine meta-data. In Le Carre’s The Spy who came in from the Cold, the line between good and evil is blurred and agents cross back and forth over the ethical and moral divide all in a good day’s job.
So I ask the question, which character does Snowden think he is playing? Neo, the ‘one?’ – the anomaly if you’re agent Smith – or George Smiley, or Hans-Dieter Mundt, or the many spies that Le Carre has spawned and written off? Spies who come in from the cold are an enigma. One never knows whether to pity them or to rail against them. Spies who end up consorting with lawyers and foreign governments are supposed to be turn-coats and double agents. Yet another part screams, what the hell are these Western Powers doing, remotely controlling my latest android gizmo?
I don’t know what they teach in spy school, but I do know that Edward Snowden realizes that Russia is not Zion. Russia and the Kremlin are more like the Oracle in The Matrix, another form of control. Control, however, in John Le Carre’s sagas is a hard nut realist who plays the game ruthlessly, without qualms and emotions. He understands that no matter whose ox is gored, no matter the consequences, what matters is that his home government (London) win.
Le Carre, a real life spy whose cover was blown by a double agent in the 1960’s, paints this unrelenting portrait of spies: “What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play Cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London, balancing the rights and wrongs? I’d have killed Mundt if I could, I hate his guts; but not now. It so happens that they need him. They need him so that the great moronic mass you admire can sleep soundly in their beds at night. They need him for the safety of ordinary, crummy people like you and me.”
Somebody find Snowden a copy of The Spy who came in from the Cold. He might need it to get past the cold Russian nights looming in the horizon. And flip off that shiny, mobile gadget. One never knows who could be listening in, old sport.