Magnus Pym is the perfect spy. We first meet him in the dead of night, knocking on the door of a dilapidated rooming house in a small English coastal town. The landlady recognizes him, but as he holes up in the room always set aside for him, it's clear this is not his usual visit. Magnus' father, the disreputable con man Rick Pym, has recently died and -- instead of returning to his wife and his post with "the Firm" in 1982 Vienna following the funeral -- Magnus has created an elaborate false trail to arrive at Miss Dubber's. He pulls out a typewriter and begins an impassioned letter to his young son, Tom, his bildungsroman: The story of Rick Pym and his adoring son Magnus, and of another father figure, the Czech spy Axel, also known as Poppy.
Magnus' narrative alternates with the story of what his disappearance has left behind: the frantic search of his wife, Mary, and his handler, Jack Brotherhood, for the why and where.
This is great stuff -- a deeply personal story of dysfunctional family relationships expertly tied to Cold War spycraft. Magnus slowly spins out the narrative of how he came to betray his country (or does he?), yet -- raised by a professional liar, and one himself -- how can we believe anything he says? Do his handlers (on both sides) really have his interests in mind as they search for him? Where do our sympathies lie? Are we being conned? I love how this book never gives up its secrets, it just builds and builds to an ending that surprises and doesn't surprise at the same time. By the end, do we know Magnus Pym? I'm not sure we do. And that's alright.
It is with the Pyms -- Rick and Magnus -- that Jayston shines. Rick's fast-talking, confident demeanor is clear in his voice; even though you know he's on the make, it's easy to be taken in by his smooth delivery. Magnus is even better: Here's a chameleon, who adapts himself to everyone he meets, conforming to what they think he should be. Like Rick, everyone thinks they know him, but no one actually does. Even when he's writing Pym's story -- which he does in the third person with occasional bursts of raw emotion when he switches to first -- there's always a hint of the con. You never forget you're listening to the story of a man who -- even though he's telling us everything -- finds it impossible to lose the mask, the ironic dispassion, and the sense that he's smarter than everyone around him. In other words, a perfect spy.
It might be fun to listen to Jayston read in another genre; it looks like he specializes in P.D. James but not on our side of the pond. My library owns something called Midshipman Bolitho, the first of a series in the Hornblower/Aubrey-Maturin vein [yawn]. Maybe it will just have to be another le Carré. Even though many reviews say A Perfect Spy was his best work (and his most autobiographical since his father was evidently very Rick Pym-like), it's not like he's a piker in the novel department.
["Underneath the Arches" is an old tune that serves as Rick's theme song. This photograph, taken as part of the Geograph Project, is of the railroad bridge arches on Duke Street in Leeds, photographed by Betty Longbottom, and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.]
A Perfect Spy by John le Carré
Narrated by Michael Jayston
Penguin Audio, 2012. 20:53