Meet John Patrick “Jack” Ryan, Sr, KCVO (Hon). Certified public accountant and stockbroker turned academic turned CIA operative turned national security advisor turned POTUS (twice!). He is, of course, independently wealthy. He got his Royal Victorian Order saving the Prince of Wales’s life from Ulster Liberation Army terrorists. While on vacation. En famille. Presumably in the snack break between Buckingham Palace and the Tate Modern.
Jack Ryan is, of course, Tom Clancy’s most famous fictional character, secret agent and militarist extraordinaire, and much beloved of Hollywood, which loves both blockbusters and blowing up entire city blocks. Sadly, as a friend lamented recently, with Clancy’s death, we shall never see Ryan becoming Grand Panjandrum of the Intergalactic Council. This is both our and Hollywood’s loss.
I may be bloodcurdlingly wrong, of course. A movie prequel about Ryan’s pre-CIA days is all set for release this Christmas. The French video game company, Ubisoft, had already purchased the use of Clancy’s name five years ago, to be used in conjunction with games and related trifles (such as books and movies). So fans need not fear, the Clancy conveyor belt continues to beat on, boats very much with the current, ceaselessly into the future. Like all great Fordist modes of production — and many bestsellers, the literary world’s equivalent of the genreless blockbuster — this one too has a specific set of narrative ingredients, mixed according to fairly specific recipes, with very specific kinds of characters and dialogue. So the chef ceases to matter. This is the McDonaldisation of espionage fiction.
In some ways, Clancy’s video-gamish military-espionage thrillers are a signal that the spy genre has come full circle. In the early-20th century, the spy novel was primarily a novel of adventure and international intrigue. Kipling’s Kim, for instance, concerns the Anglo-Russian “Great Game” for strategic dominance in Central Asia. Conrad’s The Secret Agent is about secret agents, yes, but also about psychology and anarchism and exploitation. G. K. Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday is really about the nature of suffering and identity. Robert Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands, which Ken Follett called “the first modern thriller,” began an enormous boom in the spy/invasion novel genre. And John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps, featuring the stereotypically stiff-upper-lipped Richard Hannay, surely a blueprint for all the Jack Ryans to come, taps significantly into the British paranoia of invasion during the First World War, portraying the conflict as a clash between civilisation and barbarity.
But the past is another country. Besides, the genre had begun to stultify and grow formulaic. So it was in the late 1930s, with the world poised on the brink of total war, that Eric Ambler’s Epitaph for a Spy appeared, with these calm opening lines: “I arrived in St Gatien from Nice on Tuesday, the 14th of August. I was arrested at 11:45 am on Thursday, the 16th, by an agent de police and an inspector in plain clothes and taken to the Commissariat.” With these words, thinks the critic Stephen Metcalf, “Ambler did away, once and for all, with cloak-and-dagger melodrama in favour of the qualmish chill of realism.”
Ambler’s books rescued the genre from its heavy-handedness and sense of Western superiority and plunged it into the morally ambiguous waters that splash through the pages of perhaps the two greatest spy writers — and writer spies — of the modern world: Graham Greene (sometime MI6 agent, and supervisee and friend of the soon-to-be-infamous Kim Philby) and John le Carré (notable MI5 and MI6 agent who left the Service after his cover in Hamburg was blown by the now-infamous Kim Philby).
Greene and le Carré, writing at the height of the Cold War, tapped into the great vat of moral uncertainty which superseded the easier convictions of the fight against Nazism and exposed the treacheries of the ideologies on both sides. Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, about the weary and tragic Alec Leamas, a pawn in the Great Game between East and West, is a bitter indictment of Cold War ethics and morals, reflecting its author’s utter disenchantment with the business of spying. And Greene’s The Human Factor is a masterful exploration of the West’s hypocrisy with respect to apartheid South Africa, claustrophobic in its extreme explorations of loyalty and the daily drudgery of intelligence work.
But to encounter the true madness of spies, one must dig into le Carré’s The Looking Glass War and Greene’s Our Man in Havana. Both visualise, in chillingly comic detail, what le Carré calls “the Great Spy’s Dream”, where spies, assailed by the quotidian neuroses of intelligence work, begin to suspect everyone and everything, creating their own secret bubbles of paranoia where, most likely, none exists. This is “a condition that in the spook world, rather like a superbug in a hospital, is endemic, hard to detect, and harder still to eradicate.”
Unless you’re Jack Ryan, unplagued by ocular chromatic aberrations. And in these uncertain times, who’s to say that’s a bad thing?
Sanyal is a Kolkata-based writer