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Colorful Crime Boss Inspires Le Carre's 'Traitor'

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Colorful Crime Boss Inspires Le Carre's 'Traitor'

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Colorful Crime Boss Inspires Le Carre's 'Traitor'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

"Our Kind of Traitor" is John le Carre's 22nd novel. Le Carre, the pen name of David Cornwell, has been spinning masterful spy stories since the 1960s: "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy," "The Little Drummer Girl," "The Constant Gardener," "A Perfect Spy."

Conflicts come and go but spies live on and provide le Carre/Cornwell with rich material. "Our Kind of Traitor" is about a Russian oligarch named Dima and the effort to help him defect and move to Britain.

And David Cornwell joins us from Berne in Switzerland.

Welcome to the program once again.

Mr. DAVID CORNWELL (Author, "Our Kind of Traitor"): Thank you.

SIEGEL: The plot here that is to be undone involves international money laundering, which is a real evil in the world, as you see it.

Mr. CORNWELL: I think it really is. Yes, I think it's got completely out of hand, and we shouldn't imagine that it's all done by crooks. It's done to a great extent by the big banks themselves. If we just follow the trail of prosecutions of big banks, I think Barclays quite recently paid $298 million as a fine. ABN AMRO, last May, they were caught laundering money for the benefit of Iran and so $500 million fine.

So we're not talking about the dirty work of criminals. We're talking about the complicity of big banks.

SIEGEL: Your latest novel involves banks, politicians and criminals, and this interesting Russian character, Dimas. After all these years, long after the Cold War is done, Russians continue to fascinate you and to be compelling, I gather.

Mr. CORNWELL: Yeah. I first went to Russia just before the wall came down. and then I went very soon afterwards in 1991, and then it really was the Wild East. I don't think it's much less wild now, in the ordinary terms of running a democracy that we would understand. It continues to fascinate me. And it continues, I think, to fascinate us all and alarm us slightly.

But in '91, I was in Moscow and asked former members of the KGB to put me in touch with a top criminal. And that was how I met the guy I finally wrote about. His name was Dima in real life, and his name is Dima in the novel. And I met him at 2:00 in the morning in his own nightclub somewhere in Moscow. And it was heavily guarded by former special forces guys with grenades strapped to their belts and so on.

And finally, he came in at sort of 2:00 in the morning with his bodyguards and pretty girls. And he looked ridiculously like Kojak used to look in those days.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORNWELL: He was a balding man. And finally, I was told that he would see me and talk to me. And he asked me what I wanted to know. And I didn't really know what I wanted to know, so I kind of made it up as I went along.

And I said some of the great founders of the United States got their hands very dirty when they first started making money - the Morgans and the Rockefellers and those people. And when they grew old and wise and they had children and grandchildren, they started putting back together the state that they'd ripped off, the country they'd ripped off. And they built hospitals and monuments and museums and art galleries and the rest, and they cared about society.

Is a time going to come, Dima, when you're going to do the same thing? And he gave me a long, long voluble Russian reply, and I thought I was really getting an intelligent answer. But when it was boiled down, what he was saying, according to my interpreter, was that I should go to hell.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORNWELL: So much for my beastly British theoretical approach to him.

SIEGEL: But this real-life Dima, he had been a prisoner somewhere?

Mr. CORNWELL: Yeah, that's right.

SIEGEL: That history, and also rubbed shoulders with very rich people in the new Russia?

Mr. CORNWELL: Yes. I mean, in a curious way, he followed the traditional pattern of a mafia leader, as it's understood in the United States. That's to say he went off to prison. He was greatly humiliated in childhood, terribly so. He ended up shooting his mother's lover at the age of 14, and he went off to the camps.

And one has to recognize that at that time, in the Soviet Union, the state was absolutely politicized. You couldn't expect to get a fair trial. And so in the criminal communities, up in the camps in Siberia, where people were enduring subzero temperatures right down to 60-below and so on, they formed their own basic systems of law and punishment and a basic ethic.

And I began to realize that in Dima there was a confused morality from which we could learn something.

SIEGEL: Now, people who have not had the chance to read your book yet wouldn't pick up on this. But you were describing Dima, the real-life character you met, and Dima, the character in the novel, are - they're one and the same. I mean, the background you're describing is the background of the character.

Mr. CORNWELL: Well, they're one and the same. I mean, they're based on an encounter which is now 18, 19 years old. And the last I heard of Dima in real life was that he was trying to explain to the Moscow police why he got a couple of businessmen chained together in his cellar. And he's disappeared from my life.

But he kind of hung around as a character to be written about and developed one day.

SIEGEL: Now, I want to ask you about an Englishman, a character in "Our Kind of Traitor," who is Perry or Peregrine Makepiece. He's a very earnest character.

Mr. CORNWELL: He's quite naive, earnest, intellectual, of working-class origin, graduated brilliantly at university and became a professor at Oxford University. And when we meet him, he is disturbed, disenchanted. He can't get on terms with life. He's still a young man, 30 years old.

And for me, he represents at the moment the current dismay of the young, liberal intellectual of Europe - or for that matter, of the United States.

SIEGEL: Living in a time when it's very difficult to find purpose in what one does?

Mr. CORNWELL: Yes, I think it really is. It's an amazing transitional time in your country, as well as mine. And, indeed, for that matter, in the former Soviet Union.

All of us, in a way, have to find new attitudes to materialism. We have to discover the limitations of capitalism - at least, that's the discussion in Europe. I don't know whether it's the case in the States. And we have somehow to come to terms with the way we're going to run society in the future and face the new challenges.

And it seems to me that we're somewhere between in our collective ideology, particularly in the West, that we're floating, not quite fixing on anything. We've appointed this most unhappily. We've appointed an external enemy in the form of Islam, in broad-brush terms, and that's something we have to reconcile ourselves with, and we have to work on that.

But the other huge issues are almost too daunting for any one person of my guy's age to address - the ecology, all of those things.

SIEGEL: Now, let me ask you about something that you said: On September 13th, you told British television interviewer Jon Snow that that was your last British television interview.

Mr. CORNWELL: Yeah, that's correct. It's the very reverse of retirement. But I find myself uncomfortable these days performing in public. I have a great deal to write, and I get distressed by the lead time between one novel and another. I finished this one round about Christmas time, and I seemed to have been hanging around and engaging in the inevitable preparations these days for the promotion of a novel.

And I decided that I was old enough and secure enough in myself not to want that anymore. So far from retiring from writing, I simply want to devote myself to writing full time and just keep my head down. I think I write better than I speak.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, does the end of U.K. television interviews also include American radio interviews? Is this our last conversation, David?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CORNWELL: No, I think we - let's hope, now and then, we could keep the door open, Robert. I hope so very much.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Well, okay. Well, David Cornwell, John le Carre, I look forward to our next conversation. And thank you very much.

Mr. CORNWELL: Yeah, let's try and have one.

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. CORNWELL: Thank you very much, Robert.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: And John le Carre's new novel is called "Our Kind of Traitor."

(Soundbite of music)


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