Can Europe Make It?

John Le Carré and Olof Palme: kindred spirits

The kinship between Olof Palme and David Cornwell is evident in their shared, lifelong passion for peace and solidarity, democracy and social justice

Pierre Schori
9 February 2021, 1.18pm
David Cornwell receives the Olof Palme Prize in 2019.
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Bjorn Ovarfordt. All rights reserved.

When David John Moore Cornwell, also known as John Le Carré, accepted the Olof Palme Prize in Stockholm on 30 January 2020, his concluding existential question was this:
“How would Olof Palme wish to be remembered?
And his answer:For his life, not his death. For his humanism, courage and the breadth and completeness of his humanist vision.”

It is likely that the author, then an energetic 88-year-old with a passion for truth, had asked himself the same question. He concluded with a generous tribute to Olof Palme:

And how would I like be remembered?
As the man who was awarded the 2019 Palme Prize will do me just fine.”

That evening, though, in the crowded Grünewald auditorium of the Stockholm Concert Hall nearly 35 years after Palme’s murder on Sveavägen, no one’s mind was on death. Instead, we focused on a brilliant literary address consisting of an unprecedented description of Palme and his life’s work – given by a British subject who, owing to Brexit, was considering applying for citizenship in the Republic of Ireland. In an irony of fate, this turned out to be David Cornwell’s final major public appearance, just prior to the outbreak of the pandemic.

Although the two never met, Olof Palme read and appreciated the work of John Le Carré. And former spy John Le Carré is, in turn, in all probability the internationally acclaimed author who has read the most works by and about Palme. David Cornwell was accompanied to Stockholm by an entourage including his wife Jane, three of his sons and their wives and seven grandchildren. They stayed for a week. He was eager for his loved ones to become acquainted with the legacy of Olof Palme, and to understand how much Palme meant to him. “Palme was the brother I never had,” he said over lunch at his Swedish publishers.

He came to Stockholm in spite of the fact that he did not normally accept such honors. Some years ago, he asked to be removed from the shortlist of the Man Booker International Prize saying “I do not compete for literary prizes.” He had previously only made one exception, the Goethe Prize in 2011, with the explanation that his years as a diplomat and espionage agent in Germany had actually paved the way for his literary career. Persuading Cornwell to accept the Palme Prize required a long lunch on Saint Lucia Day (13 December) at a restaurant with the female staff dressed in Handmaid’s Tale garb. David was in London for a brief hospital sojourn. He was very upset – not owing to his illness – but because of the wretched political alternatives in the previous day’s election. “So, my friend, this Friday the thirteenth is a day of political mourning”. But he had read our prize citation, which he felt shed new light on his writing, even to him. And therefore, to my delight, he said he considered it more or less his duty to attend the ceremony.

David was occupied with a new series for the BBC, from which he now intended to take a break. He asked me for material about Olof Palme. According to his family, ever since my first telephone call to him in November, he had devoted almost all his time to reading up. The more material I sent him, the more he wanted. Then, as he said in his address at the prize ceremony: “… when I set out to explore the life and work of Olof Palme and entered his spell …. my sense of kinship becomes possessive. I want a Palme for my country.” This grew into a sense that “every book I had written was some sort of unconscious footstep along his path.”

“ I want a Palme for my country.”

Olof Palme in the early 1970s

The kinship between Olof Palme and David Cornwell is evident in their shared, lifelong passion for peace and solidarity, democracy and social justice, expressed by each of them in memorable, elegantly formulated words. In an interview on Swedish Public Television, Cornwell described his political definition of a good country as based on two observations: how the country treats its marginalized inhabitants, and on what basis it chooses its elite.

Olof Palme expressed himself similarly when he stressed the necessity of uniting the need for economic growth with a determined struggle against social exclusion, in Sweden and in the rest of the world. David noted Palme’s statement in his 1980 address at a convention of Swedish Chimney Sweeps, that “it would ring false if we worked for equal rights and social justice in our own country while ignoring the world’s starving masses. It would ring similarly false if we spoke of our struggle for the indigent of the world without tackling the class distinctions and financial inequalities in our own country. There must therefore be an indissoluble link between what we strive for here at home and what we stand for internationally. It is this link that gives our policies their context and their roots”.

Le Carré’s literary career is rooted in his work for the British intelligence service, beginning in 1958, for MI5 (the Secret Intelligence Service for domestic affairs) and then, in 1960, for MI6, (for external affairs). His first work of fiction was published in 1963. The Spy who Came in from the Cold was an instant success. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy from 1974 Le Carré has George Smiley, his favorite spy, say “the secret services were the only real measure of a nation’s political health, the only real expression of its subconscious.” Both Smiley and his foremost opponent Karla of the KGB ask themselves: “Who can we trust?” “Who is a friend and who an enemy?” The brutal cynicism on both sides continued after the fall of the Berlin wall.

Ask the Ingush people of the North Caucasus, a people deprived “both of its past and of its future,” whose fate is the main theme of Le Carré’s Our Game from 1995. Ask the Kurds who stood in the front lines in the fight against ISIS, and who were then shamefully betrayed by Donald Trump. Or ask the occupied Palestinian people now also threatened with annexation.

“When the Cold War ended and the Western world was still congratulating itself, Smiley felt betrayed, and so did I. And Palme would have felt betrayed, if he had lived long enough”, as Cornwell summarized it in Stockholm. He revealed at the same time that in the midst of the arms race and destructive propaganda of the depths of the Cold War, he and his fellow agents had a strong feeling that “there was a missing voice,” a voice that was needed to counteract excessive propaganda and the threat of mutual mass destruction.

To David Cornwell, Olof Palme was that missing voice. “Palme was the voice of hope and renewal then … and he would have responded to today’s Orwellian lie machines”. In his address, Cornwell stressed the importance of Palme’s tireless efforts to achieve a nuclear disarmament treaty. Cornwell’s own experience of the apocalyptic absurdity of nuclear weapons was unforgettable. In The Pigeon Tunnel, his 2016 memoir, he describes an encounter between British Prime Minister Harold MacMillan and a prominent visiting German politician, Social Democrat Fritz Erler. This took place in 1963, at a time when the presence and control of American nuclear warheads in Germany was a burning issue.

Cornwell, a young diplomat at the time, had been assigned to accompany Erler, and overheard the following remarkable conversation. Erler described the angst of the Germans, and after glancing at Erler’s CV, MacMillan countered: “You suffered in the Second World War and I suffered in the First World War. And you and I know that the bombs will fall wherever they re going to fall´!” Shocked, Erler broke off the conversation, and walked out of the room, saying to the young diplomat, in German: “That man is no longer fit to govern.” As a former diplomat himself, Cornwell therefore appreciated Palme’s summary of the nuclear dilemma: “The nuclear powers are holding the rest of the world hostage. We, the non-nuclear nations also demand a say.”

As late as in October 2019, at the age of 88, Le Carré published what was to be his last “espionage novel,” Agent Running in the Field. Now it was no longer slimy Russians or domestic traitors such as Stig Wennerström in Sweden, Kim Philby in the UK or Aldrich Ames in the US posing threats to their nations’ security. No, this was a different “internal enemy,” the powers that be in London and Washington. The focus of the novel is the British foreign service, with its upper-class domination, and its desire, at any price, to keep Boris Johnson and Donald Trump at the helm of the fight against the European Union.

After his trip to Stockholm, David wrote, in his lovely script, that it had been “the journey of a lifetime, a novel of education in itself”. We agreed to meet again during the spring, this time in his beloved Cornwall. However, first the pandemic and then his death prevented this. Exactly a year after our lunch at Wilton’s, David Cornwell passed away at the Royal Cornwall Hospital in Truro, at the age of 89.

We had so much left to discuss. We had each encountered, in our years, a plethora of people, ranging from politicians and freedom fighters to secret agents and criminals whom we wanted to go on talking about. One of these was a Russian double agent, a defector, who had contacted him. “So what do I do?” He arranged a meeting. “It was sheer curiosity on my part.” And what did he want?” I asked.

“Nothing really, he asked me for nothing,” was Cornwell’s reply, “but I realized it was ultimately a universal problem of the kind that affects even top-level agents: he was quite simply deeply and desperately lonely in his alien golden cage.”

People who do not mince words

Some people might wonder why we gave the Prize to a writer of espionage fiction. The answer can be found in our citation, where we describe “his engaging and humanistic opinion-making in literary form regarding the freedom of the individual and the fundamental issues of mankind.”

In the citation we went on to highlight “the importance of an internationally acclaimed writer who is constantly urging us to discuss the cynical power games of the major powers, the greed of global corporations, the irresponsible play of corrupt politicians with our health and welfare, the growing spread of international crime, the tension in the Middle East, and the alarming rise of fascism and xenophobia in Europe and the United States of America”.

Another factor was that in these turbulent times, there are very few politicians and people in power who do not mince words. Instead, it is the writers who step forward, such as Harry Martinson in Aniara, Rachel Carson in Silent Spring, and Nevil Shute in On the Beach in their day, as well as more recent Palme Prize winners including Vaclav Havel, Robert Saviano, Carsten Jensen and Daniel Ellsberg. In other words, in the spirit of Olof Palme, David Cornwell made an outstanding contribution to the vital struggle for freedom, democracy, and justice. And we rest assured in the knowledge that John Le Carré will go on spellbinding generations of readers and viewers, just as David Cornwell once fell under the spell of Olof Palme.

Translated by Linda Schenck.

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