Latest le Carr'e espionage novel traces the making of a spy

A Perfect Spy, by John le Carr'e. New York City: Knopf. 475 pp. $18.95. John le Carr'e's increasingly intricate portrayals of men and women caught up in conflicting personal and political loyalties have examined what might be called the metaphysics of the espionage novel. Since ``The Spy Who Came in from the Cold'' (1963) initiated an almost unbroken string of commercial and critical successes, le Carr'e has reigned as the ultimate realist writing about the world of covert ``intelligence'' operations. It's a world in which expedience overrules all moral considerations, and betrayal is a tool of the trade that inevitably becomes a reflexive expression of character.

The bleak pessimism of le Carr'e's approach reaches an unprecedented peak (depth?) in ``A Perfect Spy.'' Its aim is to describe the making of ``a perfect spy.'' Its technique involves us -- for a time, willingly enough -- both in the dangerous crisis its ``hero'' now endures and in his burdensome and traumatic past. There is a lot of novel here; the diligent reader will find his patience severely strained but also handsomely rewarded.

The plot unfolds with mandarin slowness. Magnus Pym, a senior operative in British Intelligence (here called ``The Firm''), disappears from his post in Vienna shortly after his father's death. We know (though his colleagues don't, nor does his wife) that Pym has holed up in a seaside boardinghouse in Devon to write the story of his life and allegiances -- and crimes. He had always said: ``One day I'm going to lock myself away and tell the truth.''

The form this composition takes is a lengthy ``letter'' addressed, nominally, to his young son, Tom, and to his friend and mentor in the Firm, Jack Brotherhood. It becomes a confessional exploration of his upbringing and education; specifically, an effort to come to terms with his memory of his father. Rick Pym, we gradually learn, was an unconscionable charmer whose history of confidence schemes (he once ``faked a whole empire of bogus companies'') and related villanies exploited and manipulated everyone within his reach -- even his young son. What Magnus learns from this labyrinthine act of recollection is that he is, in every sense, inescapably his father's son.

As Magnus searches himself, the Firm searches for him, interrogating and bullying everyone suspected of knowing his whereabouts (it's assumed he has defected to Czechoslovakia). The scenes in which Jack Brotherhood brutally questions Pym's wife, and those that show the Firm's furious plotting, counterplotting, secrecy, and paranoia give the story set in the present terrific economy, tension, and drive. All the more troublesome, therefore, that its counterpart story about the past is allowed such leisurely complexity.

Dickensian drollery animates some of the anecdotes about ``Pym the infant refugee,'' and there are eloquent reminiscences of Magnus's schooling. But the descriptions of Pym's career as a fledgling spy -- and of various personal relationships -- are impossibly prolix, and unravel our grateful involvement in the story of his present trials.

``A Perfect Spy'' unquestionably offers a powerful dramatization of the human cost of the commitments Magnus Pym makes and unmakes. But its slow, meticulous writing will leave many hopeful readers frowning by the wayside. This may be a major novel that nobody will be able to finish.

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