Author draws parallels between Donald Trump and rise of 1930s fascism, in rare public appearance at Royal Festival Hall
John le Carré, one of Britain’s greatest living writers, has spoken of the “toxic” parallels between the rise of Donald Trump and the rise of 1930s fascism.
In a rare public appearance, the 85-year-old novelist and former spy spoke of his disdain for Trump and his despair for the US and the wider world.
“Something truly, seriously bad is happening and from my point of view we have to be awake to that,” he told an audience at the Royal Festival Hall in London.
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“These stages that Trump is going through in the United States and the stirring of racial hatred … a kind of burning of the books as he attacks, as he declares real news as fake news, the law becomes fake news, everything becomes fake news.
“I think of all things that were happening across Europe in the 1930s, in Spain, in Japan, obviously in Germany. To me, these are absolutely comparable signs of the rise of fascism and it’s contagious, it’s infectious. Fascism is up and running in Poland and Hungary. There’s an encouragement about.”
Even today, Le Carré said, Ang Sang Suu Kyi is speaking of “fake news” in Burma. “These are infectious forms of demagogic behaviour and they are toxic.”
Le Carré was speaking at an event in aid of the charity Médecins Sans Frontières and which was also beamed to cinemas – to mark the publication of his latest book, A Legacy of Spies, which features the return of his fictional spymaster George Smiley.
The audience, which included Tom Stoppard, Nigella Lawson, Frank Skinner, Jarvis Cocker, Richard Osman and Robert Winston, listened as Le Carré looked back on his life and work and answered tweeted questions from the public, chosen by moderator Jon Snow.
Le Carré was employed by both MI5 and MI6 before becoming a writer, but he said the service then was a kind of “non-violent fairyland” hugely different to the security services of today.
Asked whether he would recommend being a spy, he said: “It is is such a huge industry now, with so many different compartments, it is almost like saying: would you take up the law? These services have altered so vastly since my day.”
If people are, though, “by instinct a befriender, a seducer and a liar, in the sense of a gentleman who lies for the good of his country” then MI6 is for you, “but think of the second half of your life because not many people have one”.
Despite Le Carré’s new book being billed as the return of Smiley, his appearance is, according to one review, “the slimmest of cameos”.
Nevertheless, it has been rapturously received. Reviewing for the Guardian, John Banville writes: “The ingenuity and skill with which the thing is brought off is breathtaking – really, not since The Spy [Who Came in from the Cold] has Le Carré exercised his gift as a storyteller so powerfully and to such thrilling effect.”
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The book tells the story of Smiley’s right-hand man Peter Guillam, summoned to MI6’s headquarters in Vauxhall to explain the events from The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which resulted in the deaths at the Berlin wall of agent Alec Leamas and his lover Liz Gold.
Le Carré said Guillam, “when I’m feeling confused but willing”, was the character he most related to, but there were parts of him in all his characters. “You can’t actually make character without putting something of yourself in to each one, even the most larcenous and wicked, the most lecherous, the most pure. Each of them has, in his or her own way, something that you can relate to.”
Le Carré’s previous Smiley novels are set in the cold war, an almost unimaginably different era to which he said he did not hark back.
He admitted being old-fashioned, writing every day with a pen. And although there will be no more Smiley he said he would continue writing and was working on his next novel. “I would go on writing even if I knew I was not going to be published, ever. I couldn’t help it.”