Nobel winner Abdulrazak Gurnah’s fiction traces small lives with wit and tenderness

Abdulrazak Gurnah captivatingly draws readers into the experiences and vivid lifeworlds of his characters
Getty Images

Tina Steiner, Stellenbosch UniversityFor those of us who have read and reread, taught, and written about the fiction of Abdulrazak Gurnah, the Nobel Prize in Literature committee has confirmed what we knew all along. His superb writing deserves much wider recognition and readership.

Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, the archipelago off the Tanzanian coast, in 1948. Then still a British Protectorate, Zanzibar gained independence in December 1963, only to be thrown into the turmoil and violence of the Zanzibar Revolution of January 1964. These are historical events to which he returns in his fiction repeatedly.

He left for the UK in 1967 and has lived there ever since, except for a short teaching stint at Bayero University Kano in Nigeria in the 1980s. He taught in the English department at the University of Kent in Canterbury until his recent retirement.

Even though he has lived most of life in England, all his novels – except for Dottie (1990), which is set entirely in the UK – are set either fully or partially on the Eastern African Swahili Coast or in Zanzibar. To date he has published ten immensely readable novels and many short stories. These are written in clean and uncluttered prose. It makes him a master storyteller, captivatingly drawing the reader into the experiences and vivid lifeworlds of the characters depicted.

Connecting people and geographies

The work of the imagination to follow the storyteller’s attention creates connections that in their intangibility might seem elusive. And yet any reader will know these to be powerful and potentially transformative. As Ben Okri, a Nigerian writer, reminds us, such threads, which interweave stories and life, are deeply significant. This is because stories “can infect a system, or illuminate a world”. The ambiguity in Okri’s description of the effect of stories captures the way in which stories potentially open up the world and contest narratives that circumscribe and preclude mutuality. It also talks to the danger of stories when they participate in and serve as justification for structures of domination, exclusion and violence.

Gurnah, the storyteller, probes the efficacy of stories to connect people and geographies. Yet at the same time he is acutely attentive to the divisive nature of stories of certainty: of colonial domination, of patriarchal scripts, of racism, of xenophobia towards strangers from elsewhere. His work points to the way in which such certainties furnish people with a belief in the rightness of the violence they wreak on others, in the destruction of other people’s lives which they deem to matter less than their own.

Instead, Gurnah’s work asks the reader to consider stories as provisional accounts that cannot claim closure or complete knowledge. Ambiguity, multiple viewpoints of the same events, complex focalisation, self-reflexive irony and narrative wit are some of the features of his writing. They make his writing so incredibly compelling. It elides narrative certainty. The narrative mode is often oblique. Perhaps we can imagine it like this, or perhaps it happened otherwise. This mode is particularly apt to illuminate the itinerant lives of people who find themselves on the move and who do not seem to belong anywhere.

Migration and other forms of displacement, as Gurnah’s stories suggest, are common occurrences in Africa and across the globe. Therefore, it is important to see others in relation to ourselves, to perceive their right of abode even if they cannot claim national belonging. However, it is precisely the humanity of the stranger that is at stake once the status of citizenship is in question. Hospitality is revealed as conditional in the current hostile immigration climate. The asylum seeker, the refugee and the migrant are hardly afforded the dignity which the recognition of a common humanity would demand.

It is this refusal to recognise the humanity of the other and its terrible consequences that Gurnah’s stories explore in detail. He crafts carefully delineated juxtapositions between hostile, implacable environments in which his characters find themselves with little room to manoeuvre, and pockets of hospitality that gesture towards alternative social imaginaries where kindness and joie de vivre become possible.

In contrast to an essentialist view of a citizen as someone who is described in terms of appearance or ancestry, Gurnah sets the complexity of centuries of intermingling along the East African shores of the Indian Ocean. In this way his stories question ideas of purity and difference. They emphasise the cultural and linguistic heterogeneity of East African coastal regions and their place within the continent, the Indian Ocean world, and the globe in order to stress a common humanity.

Empathetic storytelling

Across his oeuvre, which traverses settings in Zanzibar, Dar es Salaam, Bagamoyo, Mombasa, Lake Tanganyika, Nairobi, Muscat, Bahrain and several locales in England, Gurnah traces a long history of transnational and transoceanic movements. His work references the Eastern African slave trade and indenture, German and British colonial oppression and less legible but equally destructive forms of social exclusion to do with economic precarity and migration. While his characters are often caught in violent and unequal plots not of their own making and beyond their control – since Gurnah’s stories tend to focus on people whose lives are deemed insignificant and small – his empathetic storytelling subtly points to the importance of social connections, however unexpected, that offer reassurance and warmth.

In this way, his novels also cautiously celebrate the polyglot cosmopolitanisms and generous forms of accommodation that emerged on the Swahili coast within broader structures of ambivalent encounter in the monsoon trade and imperial conquest. In a passage in By the Sea, Gurnah’s sixth novel, published in 2001, seven-year-old Saleh Omar, one of the protagonists and narrators, describes his first encounter with a map of an Africa embedded in the wider world of the Indian Ocean:

As [the teacher’s] story developed, he began to draw a map on the blackboard with a piece of white chalk: the coast of North Africa which then bulged out and tucked in and then slid down to the Cape of Good Hope. As he drew, he spoke, naming places, sometimes in full sometimes in passing. Sinuously north to the jut of the Ruvuma delta, the cusp of our stretch of coast, the Horn of Africa, then the Red Sea coast to Suez, the Arabian peninsula, the Persian Gulf, India, the Malay peninsula and then all the way to China. He stopped there and smiled.

This moment of the unbroken chalk line is pivotal, not just in relation to this particular novel, but perhaps to Gurnah’s oeuvre as a whole. It makes visible the ocean on which so many of his stories float. And I suspect that this teacher’s smile is also the soryteller’s. It is the subtle humour which suffuses his writing that give his stories a lightness of touch, despite the harrowing aspects of the narratives. It contributes enormously to the pleasure of reading.

There is the acerbic sarcasm which exposes racial aggression and renders it absurd. And there is the self-deprecating humour of the migrant in the face of an immovable and indifferent environment, which staves off self-pity and sets in motion processes of disalienation. The dry wit of the narratives allows Gurnah to forge a bond with readers, who come to appreciate it as a mode of interaction that can liquefy ossified social categories by opening up spaces of irony and ambiguity and remind us of the fragility of the human condition we all share.The Conversation

Tina Steiner, Associate Professor in the English Department, Stellenbosch University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Fiction and memoirs were covering health way before the COVID-19 pandemic

Dostoyevsky’s story ‘The Double’ explores the uncanny theme of a replica of oneself, but today’s literary foes are often amorphous ones like environmental degradation.

Cynthia Spada, University of Victoria

Beyond the viral contagion of COVID-19, the pandemic’s accompanying social and economic hardships have challenged many people’s physical and mental wellness. Over the past year of navigating living in a pandemic, it’s become clear that relationships matter to health: relationships between body and mind, between neighbours and between individuals and their societies.

Literature was dissecting these connections long before the outbreak. Recent memoirs, non-fiction, fiction, poetry and graphic novels related to physical and mental health examine not just the fragility of individuals but how individuals relate to social and power structures like capitalism, racism or colonialism. Writers have also explored how people’s social roles and identities shape their relationships to narrative itself. As American poet and memoirist Anne Boyer writes in her Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir, The Undying, “I do not want to tell the story of cancer in the way that I have been taught to tell it.”

For several years, I have been researching, writing about and teaching literary texts related to maladies like depression, substance abuse and cancer. I’m interested in how narratives about health published today explore the interdependence of bodies and their environments in a way that may teach us important lessons during the pandemic, and beyond it.

The ‘literature of madness’

Since the 1960s, critiques of medical education, medical ethics and the role of narrative in healing have meant an emerging awareness of how the medical field can be allied with literature.

Some medical schools are requiring students to take literature courses to become more adept with reading patients’ stories; some students take my contemporary literature course at University of Victoria to satisfy a medical school course requirement. The convergence of these two fields is helping to disrupt the canonical “literature of madness.”

American author Charlotte Perkins Gilman, c. 1900.
(Library of Congress/Wikimedia)

Starting in the 1970s, mental illness became a hot topic in literature departments. Books like Shoshana Felman’s Writing and Madness and Lillian Feder’s Madness in Literature marked the new interest.

In “Literature of Madness” courses at various universities, students studied Dostoyevsky’s The Double, Charlotte Perkin Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Ken Kesey’s One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar.

These health stories pit mentally ill characters against individual antagonists like husbands, mothers, doctors and nurses, or, fighting oneself as seen through the ancient literary theme of the double or dopplegänger (as in Dostoyevsky’s tale). Yet some critics have also explored how these narratives examine individuals battling formidable but intangible foes, and thus comment on social ills: For example, patriarchy in The Bell Jar
and “The Yellow Wallpaper.”

Social ills

Many recent health narratives today are questioning how well-being is damaged by social determinants of health like income inequality and racism. They are also examining how health relates to phenomena like capitalism and climate change, which are elusive but all-pervasive.

Cover of 'The Undying.'
‘The Undying’ by Anne Boyer.
(Farrar, Strauss and Giroux)

For instance, Boyer damns the American health-care system, with its outrageous costs and lack of guaranteed sick leave, but also capitalism as a whole. For her, like Susan Sontag, cancer infuses culture as much as human bodies, but economic pressures also cast a huge shadow.

Blending personal experience and big-picture analysis can be found in other recent health memoirs. In The Recovering: Intoxication and Its Aftermath, American writer Leslie Jamison discusses her own experiences of alcoholism as a white woman alongside the racism of the American criminal justice system. As she observes: “White addicts get their suffering witnessed. Addicts of colour get punished.”

The best-selling essay collection A Mind Spread Out on the Ground, by Tuscarora writer Alicia Elliott, examines
how systematic oppression of Indigenous communities is linked to depression.
Her settler therapist can’t understand why she’s depressed, and none of her self-help books actually help.

She writes of one, “There is nothing in the book about the importance of culture, nothing about intergenerational trauma, racism, sexism, colonialism, homophobia, transphobia.”

This interest in the social determinants of health isn’t limited to non-fiction. Sabrina by American cartoonist Nick Drnaso is a 2018 graphic novel that was longlisted for the 2018 Man Booker Prize. Sabrina takes stock of what appears to be PTSD and depression in a political climate of misinformation and conspiracy theories.

As one character fills out a daily wellness report, the reader may realize anyone would feel depression and anxiety in such a world.

Health among the living

Meanwhile, Fady Joudah, a Palestinian American poet and practising doctor, weighs economic inequity and a lack of sustainability in “Corona Radiata,” a poem about COVID-19 published last March. “Corona Radiata” argues that we need to understand health as contingent on relationships between humans — and between humans and other living things. Joudah suggests that:

“Far and near the virus awakens

in us a responsibility

to others who will not die

our deaths, nor we theirs,

though we might …”

He’s right, if hopeful. Until the vaccine is widely distributed, public health will depend on our ability to understand ourselves as part of an inconceivably vast network.

American novelist Richard Powers’s The Overstory, which won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2019, also unites health with responsibility. In the novel, characters challenged by physical disabilities and strokes find ways to communicate with and through nature. A scientist almost dies by suicide early in the novel before recommitting herself to loving as well as studying the trees. Environmental activism gives them purpose, even if it doesn’t heal them.

Future health stories

British writer Robert Macfarlane has proposed that the environmental crisis will continue to transform our literature and art. Many recent works support his idea. In particular, the latest health literature fuses various genres, including memoir, biography, reportage, literary and cultural criticism, science writing and prose poetry.

The new health literature also reminds us that our health and the planet’s are inextricably linked. In the near future, this genre is likely to increasingly address the impact of climate change on our physical and mental well-being, such as the rise in eco-anxiety. I think we’ll see a blending of literature, medicine and environmental studies more and more often.

Some researchers have noted a link between reading and longevity in individuals. Reading health literature may spur us to support longevity for the Earth too.The Conversation

Cynthia Spada, Sessional Lecturer in the Department of English, University of Victoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

‘I couldn’t escape. I wasn’t entirely sure I wanted to’: confusing messages about consent in young adult fantasy fiction

Unsplash/Travis Grossen, CC BY

Elizabeth Little, Deakin University and Kristine Moruzi, Deakin University

Sexual consent and young people have been in the news lately, from an online petition detailing thousands of high schoolers’ recollections of sexual assault and rape to calls for better school-based education.

What young people read is another important form of sexual education. Young adult (YA) fiction has a unique role to play in representing sexual relationships, but a number of popular YA fantasy novels send confusing and potentially harmful messages about sex and consent. Often, these are not addressed, such as when Shalia in the Reign the Earth series (2018-2020) is forced to consummate her marriage.

‘I didn’t feel love, or lust, or heat. I felt frightened … panicked beneath him.’

Rather than echo the “bodice ripper” content of some adult fantasy novels (where sex usually begins with domination), books for young readers can be an opportunity to unpack what consent is and isn’t.

Some books in the young adult fantasy genre echo the ‘bodice rippers’ of yesteryear.
Unsplash/Hanna Postova, CC BY

Read more:
Teen summer reads: how to escape to another world after a year stuck in this one

Characters young people relate to

Research shows young people use YA fiction as a source of sex education. Teens turn to novels to learn through the actions of characters they relate to. They identify with what is happening on the page and learn without having to seek advice or information from adults or peers.

Studies have also shown representations of sexual intimacy provide a behavioural script for young readers. These scripts are then put to use during their own sexual encounters. In one study, researchers heard from girls who used episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer to learn new “date moves”.

Book cover: Twilight


Because sex is a natural area of interest for readers, realist YA fiction engages with questions of sexual consent in clear ways. YA fantasy — the genre that includes the Twilight series and The Hunger Games — can omit some important aspects of this.

Psychologists have characterised schoolgirl Bella’s relationship with vampire Edward in Twilight as a template for violence and abuse, concerned fans may model real-life relationships on the narrative. Jealous Edward isolates Bella from her friends, family and potential love rivals, even sabotaging her car to prevent her escape from him.

Fantasy fiction is often set in a different time or place, but it still reflects contemporary concerns.

In many of these novels, the female character’s ability to say “yes” is denied to her. In Shelby Mahurin’s Serpent and Dove (2019), the female protagonist is forced into marriage. Brigid Kemmerer’s A Curse So Dark and Lonely (2019) gains inspiration from Beauty and the Beast, with the female protagonist captured and unable to consent to her relationship. Neither novel discusses how consent is compromised.

Read more:
Friday essay: why YA gothic fiction is booming – and girl monsters are on the rise

‘Too shy to say the words’

In Holly Black’s The Cruel Prince series (2018-2019), Prince Cardan physically and emotionally abuses orphan girl Jude during their relationship. Her consent to intimacy is mired in domestic violence.

book cover: The Cruel Prince


When they do have sex, she does not verbally consent. Jude is “too shy to say the words” and just “kisses him instead”. This example of sexual consent contradicts models of positive consent as an “enthusiastic yes” or the viral video many young people are shown depicting consent as similar to offering someone a cup of tea.

Sarah J. Maas’ popular series, A Court Of Thorns and Roses (2015-2021) begins with a romantic relationship between Feyre and Tamlin in a magical kingdom. The series has sold over six million copies.

Yet, in the first book, a serious violation of consent occurs. When Tamlin attempts to kiss Feyre, she tells him to “let go”, but instead he embeds his claws in a wall behind her head. When she pushes him away, he “grabs [her] hands and bites [her] neck”.


Feyre’s reaction to Tamlin is confusing as well. While she tells him to stop, she also describes her feelings of sexual arousal. She “couldn’t escape” from Tamlin but “wasn’t entirely sure [she] wanted to”. To Feyre’s fury, the next morning Tamlin says he “can’t be held accountable” for her bruises. But by the next paragraph all is forgiven.

The descriptions of physical pleasure also suggest verbal consent in not the only thing in play. Is she saying no, when she really means yes?

Read more:
Relationships and sex education is now mandatory in English schools – Australia should do the same

Explicit consent

Of course, some YA fantasy texts address consent explicitly. Tracy Deonn’s Legendborn (2020) features clear conversations of consent. When Nick asks if he can kiss Bree, she responds “Oh”. He then clarifies “Oh, ‘no’, or oh, ‘yes’?”.


Some books have questionable consent but call it out on the page. In Jodi McAlister’s Valentine series, male faerie Finn uses his powers to enter Pearl’s dreams and lead her into sexual fantasies. When she realises what he’s done, she orders him “out of [her] head”, and they discuss his inappropriate behaviour.

Ambiguous scenes in YA fantasy can provide an opportunity for parents, teachers and young people to discuss consent and sexual intimacy. How are the characters consenting to intimacy? Is there an aspect of consent missing? What would be a better way for these characters to gain consent from each other? Care should be taken not to glorify taking advantage of these ambiguities in an intimate setting.

Classrooms can also be a place to confront the taboos of sexuality by analysing sexual interactions and unpacking how consent is given. Equipping teachers to facilitate conversations around trust, sex and consent could further the conversation.

Read more:
Let’s make it mandatory to teach respectful relationships in every Australian school

The Conversation

Elizabeth Little, PhD Candidate, Deakin University and Kristine Moruzi, Senior Lecturer in the School of Communication & Creative Arts, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

There’s no such thing as a ‘faithful retelling’ of the Arthurian legend

The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon by Edward Burne Jones.

Amy Louise Blaney, Keele University

Justice League director Zach Snyder has said he is interested in working on a “faithful retelling” of Arthurian myth. Cut to a small horde of Arthurian scholars (myself included) entering stage left to loudly proclaim that there is no such thing as a “faithful retelling” of the King Arthur myth. King Arthur is one of the most pervasive legends of all time. What scholars call the “Arthurian mythological concept” has developed over several centuries – and over several cultures. Indeed, what makes the Arthur legend so enduring is its very lack of fidelity.

Although many of us today get our first taste of the Arthurian legend from films such as Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017) or TV shows such as the BBC’s Merlin (2008-2012), the core elements of the story that we recognise remain largely medieval.

Arthur’s name first appears in the work of ninth century Welsh historian Nennius. However, the legend as we know it today – knights in shining armour, damsels in distress, Round Table, Holy Grail etc – gallops into view from around the 12th century onward. This heralds the start of what is now known as the “Romance Tradition”.

Painting of Merlin being seduced.
The Beguiling of Merlin by Edward Burne Jones depicts the wizard being seduced by the Lady of the Lake.

Chances are that if you’ve read a version of the Arthur story today it is likely to be one of these Romances – most likely Thomas Malory’s 15th-century Morte D’Arthur or an early 20th-century re-telling such as TH White’s The Once and Future King. The tradition also proved very popular with the Victorians – especially with the Pre-Raphaelites, whose visual depictions of Arthurian legend frame the way we see the legend today.

For example, their paintings popularised captivating female figures such as the virginal Maid of Astolat (or Shallot), the dangerous enchantress Morgan Le Fay and the beguiling Lady of the Lake, the temptress Nimue.

One thing that remains consistent throughout the centuries however is the Arthurian myth’s ability to remain relevant to the people, countries, and eras in which it is being retold.

Reworkings and re-imaginings

In the late 17th-century, for example, Arthur was enlisted in the wake of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 as a means of bolstering support for the new Protestant regime and their political allies. Physician-poet Richard Blackmore wrote two lengthy epic poems – Prince Arthur (1695) and King Arthur (1697) – comparing the new King William III to Arthur and praising the way in which the monarch’s religious (and, crucially, Protestant) piety would “fresh Life to Albion […] impart”.

This was certainly not the first time Arthur had been associated with the English throne. Both the Tudors and the Stuarts adopted the mythical king to suit their own political purposes, with Henry VII going so far as to repaint the Winchester Round Table with a Tudor Rose at its centre. The paint job was probably in honour of a state visit by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1522 and – just to ensure that Charles got the message – Henry also had himself depicted on the table, sitting in Arthur’s place.

The Winchester Round Table, showing Henry VII sitting in Arthur's seat and with a Tudor Rose at its centre.
The Winchester Round Table, showing Henry VII sitting in Arthur’s seat and with a Tudor Rose at its centre.
Wikimedia/Mike Peel, CC BY-SA

Nor was it the last time that Arthur would find himself so conscripted. Elements of the Arthurian story – most notably the figure of Merlin – were used in the early 18th-century by the Hanoverian monarchs and their supporters to bolster their own claims to an inherently “British” identity.

Queen Caroline, a clever and well-informed curator of her own public image, capitalised upon the 18th-century’s rediscovery of its national history through ancient heroes. In collaboration with architect William Kent, she developed Merlin’s Cave – a name suggestive of a grotto but in reality more of a thatched folly (a round house with a thatched roof) designed around the Merlin myth – in the gardens at Richmond in 1735.

Numerous panegyric poems – poems designed to publicly praise and flatter – followed including two by “a lady subscribed Melissa”. The first praises “Her Majesty Queen Guardian” as the inheritor of Merlin’s legacy. The second, entitled Merlin’s Prophecy, envisages Frederick, Prince of Wales as “Ordain’d, to wield the Sceptre Royal […] And rule o’er Britons, Brave, and Loyal”.

As these examples illustrate, the one thing we can really say with any certainty about the Arthurian mythos is that fidelity is – as with any myth – an impossible concept.

Arthur has come a long way since his ninth century origins and our modern interpretations show no signs of altering that trend. Whether it’s making us laugh about the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) or putting women centre stage in Cursed (2020), the appeal of Arthur’s mythical world is its adaptability.

He might be “The Once and Future King”, but there’s no such thing as faithful in Arthur’s mythical world.The Conversation

Amy Louise Blaney, PhD Candidate and Associate Lecturer in English Literature, Keele University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

John Le Carré: authentic spy fiction that wrote the wrongs of post-war British intelligence

Christopher J. Murphy, University of Salford

Britain’s top spy, MI6 chief Richard Moore, has paid tribute to John le Carré, tweeting that the novelist had “left his mark on #MI6 through his evocative and brilliant novels”. Moore’s tweet, which conveyed the condolences of “all at the #RiverHouse” – the name le Carré gave the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS) headquarters on the banks of the Thames, even blew le Carré’s cover, referring to the writer by his real name, David Cornwell.

Moore’s words of comfort were a far cry form the attitude of his predecessor at MI6, Sir Richard Dearlove, who last year complained about the “corrosive” nature of le Carré’s novels, that he said were “exclusively about betrayal”, a criticism also levelled at his work by former SIS officer Baroness Daphne Park.

Read more:
John le Carré, MI6 and the fact and fiction of British secret intelligence

Le Carré’s 25 novels have always come with the added cachet of being written by someone who once worked for the intelligence services. Yet as the writer himself explained in 2013, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, the 1963 novel that made him a household name, was only considered acceptable for publication by MI6 – for whom he was working at the time – because they had “concluded, rightly if reluctantly, that the book was sheer fiction from start to finish, uninformed by personal experience, and that accordingly it constituted no breach of security”.

The association with the reality of intelligence was one which le Carré himself was keen to downplay. He expressed his desire to shake off the association in an interview with Melvyn Bragg in 1976:

If you write a story about street girls in London you aren’t immediately accused of running a brothel, but if you write a spy story, the more credible, the more authentic, the more plausible it is, the less credit you get for an act of imagination.

Imaginative it may have been, but le Carré’s work is certainly not devoid of realism – the shadow of Cambridge Spy Kim Philby can be seen in both the “mole” in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and in the career of Magnus Pym, the protagonist of A Perfect Spy, which was partly based on le Carré’s own unhappy childhood. But credibility and authenticity do not necessarily equate to reality – anyone looking for true stories with the names changed would be disappointed.

Despite being products of his imagination, the credibility and authenticity that permeated le Carré’s work served to educate the general public about intelligence work at a time when very little was said officially about the agencies themselves. MI5 was not placed on a statutory basis – that is to say, it did not formally exist – until 1989, followed by MI6 five years later.

But ten years before that, when the BBC adaptation of his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was first broadcast, an audience of over 8 million which tuned in each week (according to his biographer, Adam Sisman) learned all about the danger of “moles” – long-term sleeper agents who burrow their way into the intelligence machinery of the “other side”.

Alec Guinness in costume for his role as spymaster George Smiley in the BBC production of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Alec Guinness as George Smiley, John Le Carré’s fictional spymaster.
BBC Images

It was a timely education – in a pure coincidence of TV scheduling, within weeks of the broadcast, the public learned of the existence of a real-life, high-level mole. Sir Anthony Blunt, a former surveyor of the Queen’s pictures and wartime MI5 officer, was revealed to have been one of the Cambridge Five spy ring who were recruited before the second world war and who spied for decades for the Soviet Union from the heart of the British establishment.

Honeytraps and scalphunters

Le Carré’s novels dramatically changed the way the British public, fed on a diet of James Bond and Len Deighton, perceived the world of intelligence. They also provided welcome fodder for newspapers. A story about former MI6 chief John Scarlett’s post-intelligence career published in the i paper in November 2015 was given the headline: “The spy who came into a fortune”. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is also regularly evoked in the press: “Now it’s tinker, tailor, soldier, Booker judge”, wrote Richard Brookes in the Sunday Times when it was announced that former director general of MI5, Dame Stella Rimington, had been appointed to the judging panel for the literary award.

But as well as influencing public perceptions, le Carré’s intelligence jargon – “honeytraps”, “lamplighters”, “scalphunters”, “mothers”, “babysitters” and the like – had a corresponding influence on the spies themselves. As Sisman notes in his biography of le Carré, some of his terms were “subsequently adopted by intelligence professionals”.

There’s long been a strong connection between literary fiction and the world of espionage. Le Carré’s distinguished predecessors, including the likes of Graham Greene, W. Somerset Maugham, Arthur Ransome and Ian Fleming had blazed that trail before. But it was le Carré, primarily, who took Britain’s spies out of sharp suits, fancy cars and the moral certainty of “my country right or wrong”. Instead he gave us books populated by people, like himself, who are: “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living.” No wonder some of the real spies didn’t always love his work.The Conversation

Christopher J. Murphy, Senior Lecturer in Intelligence Studies, University of Salford

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.