Viking editor Mary Mount recounts for us the day she received John le Carré’s manuscript for A Delicate Truth, and reflects on the themes of the novel in the wake of Edward Snowden’s revelations.
On a late summer’s morning in 2012 my office phone rang. It was Jonny Geller, John le Carré’s agent. ‘I’ll be biking over David’s script this afternoon,’ he said.
Two hours later the jiffy bag was delivered. The arrival of a le Carré novel in manuscript is thrilling: the neatly typed pages, always in Tahoma font immediately identifiable as his. Jonny had intimated only slightly the inspiration behind the book in the months before its arrival – but le Carré always likes to complete a first draft before signing a contract, and hates talking about a novel in progress, so I had only the vaguest sense of what to expect.
I began the manuscript sitting at my kitchen table. The novel opens with an epigraph from Oscar Wilde: ‘If one tells the truth, one is sure, sooner or later, to be found out’ and then moves to a brilliantly vivid portrait of a slightly clapped-out British civil servant pacing a hotel room in Gibraltar.
The novel was mesmerising: unbearably tense and riveted to the political deceptions of recent years – taking in the British government’s forays into modern wars and the collateral damage those wars entailed in every sense of the phrase: from the innocent victims of the violence to the further disintegration of public trust. And, at the centre of it all was Toby Bell, a bright young man in his 30s, a man desperate to do the right thing and with a powerful, albeit naïve, belief in the necessity of the truth. He was a ‘solitary decider’, a whistleblower, someone prepared to forsake everything – security, career, life even – to expose the realities of our world. By the end of the novel, we realise just how dangerous Bell’s decision is and how vulnerable to the actions of the powerful this ‘solitary decider’ has become.
As soon as I finished I set off for the local park, unable to stay indoors, unable to keep still. I rang the author in a state of high excitement and told him what I thought. The novel was le Carré at his best: unbelievably taut in its pacing and speaking to our times in a way that few novelists attempt. After I banged on for a bit we made arrangements to meet to discuss the edit. And so began the publishing process, the editing (leading on to further discussions in the pub), covers, blurbs, text design and finally publication, in April 2013. The novel went straight to number one on the hardback bestseller list and was acclaimed by critics and fans across the country and around the world.
And then, two months after publication, on 5th June, a bright young man in his early 30s by the name of Edward Snowden published the first set of government documents exposing previously unknown details of a global surveillance apparatus run by the United States’ NSA. Subsequent leaks by Snowden would reveal the cooperation of many Western governments, including Britain, with the NSA operation. Snowden had risked everything, a comfortable job, a career, citizenship, a home, his country, his safety because he wanted to inform the public of what was being ‘done in their name and what was being done against them’. Within two weeks the United States federal prosecutors filed a criminal complaint against Snowden, by 1st July Snowden had appealed for asylum from more than twenty countries. On that day the president of Bolivia, Eva Morales, was flying home from a conference in Russia when his plane was rerouted to Austria and searched there after France, Spain and Italy denied access to their airspace, believing Snowden had stowed away on board. Two weeks later senior officials from the British government contacted the editor of the Guardian and insisted he destroy the hard drives on which Snowden’s revelations were saved. In August, David Miranda, the partner of Glenn Greenwald, the Guardian journalist who had collaborated with Snowden on the NSA revelations was detained by UK authorities for almost nine hours at Heathrow Airport under the Terrorism Act of 2000 and most of his electronic equipment was confiscated.
Throughout the fifty years since publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold the phrase, ‘straight out of a le Carré novel’ has been used as a shorthand way of describing all sorts of surreptitious and nefarious actions by international governments or corporations. Le Carré is unsurpassed among contemporary novelists in his ability to make thrilling and morally resonant narratives out of the iniquities of our age. But, even so, as I watched the interview with Snowden on the Guardian website almost exactly a year after I first read A Delicate Truth I had this eerie sense that I was actually back in the pages of the novel. I returned to the book, to Toby in an early chapter: ‘steeling himself to perform an act of espionage so outrageous that, if detected, it would cost him his career and his freedom.’ And then I went to the end when Toby confronts his former government boss, by now a broken reed, about the dangerous truth they both know but only one of them thinks should be exposed to the innocent British public. His boss responds: ‘Whether I know it or you know it is neither here or there. What is at issue is whether the world knows it, and whether it should.’ It is a question le Carré asked in 2012 and Edward Snowden would answer a year later.
*John le Carré is the pseudonym for David Cornwell
A Delicate Truth is available in paperback from today.