Books

John Le Carré wins $130K Olof Palme Prize for 'extraordinary contribution' to democracy and social justice

The famed British writer will receive the honour for “outstanding achievement” in Stockholm on Jan. 30, 2020. The Olof Palme Prize honours the memory of the late Swedish Prime Minister who was assassinated in 1986.
John le Carré at his home in London in 2017. (Eleanor Wachtel/CBC)

John Le Carré has won a Swedish prize valued at $100,000 (approx. $130,500 Cdn). 

The Olof Palme Prize honours the memory of the late prime minister and former leader of the Social Democratic Party of Sweden, Olof Palme, who was assassinated in 1986.

The prize, which has been given annually since 1987, recognizes "an outstanding achievement in any of the areas of anti-racism, human rights, international understanding, peace and common security."

According to a press release, Le Carré has been awarded the prize "for his engaging and humanistic opinion making in literary form regarding the freedom of the individual and the fundamental issues of mankind."

The British writer, whose real name is David Cornwell, has been publishing books for over 50 years. Before he was a full-time writer, he worked as a spy for both MI5 and MI6 at the height of the Cold War. 

His books draw on this experience, exploring themes of international conflict, corruption and terrorism.

His works have been adapted for television and film numerous times. His writing often explores themes of espionage and international corruption.

He is most famous for his character George Smiley, a quiet and enigmatic spy who first appeared in Le Carré's 1961 debut novel Call For the Dead. Smiley most recently featured in 2017's A Legacy of Spies

Speaking to Writers & Company's Eleanor Wachtel in 2017, Le Carré said that it was Smiley's unassuming nature that made him so engaging as both a literary character and a spy.

"I made him, I suppose, a most improbable figure. One of the meek who inherit the earth. The kind of man you wouldn't give a second look to; I took trouble to make him anonymous," said Le Carré.

In this interview from 2017, the former British intelligence officer and master of the political thriller talks to Eleanor Wachtel about A Legacy of Spies, his latest novel to feature the iconic character, George Smiley. 1:07:29

"This wasn't his cover, but it was his nature. It's the reason why many people take up the secret life — for some people it's a refuge. For some people it's the comradeship, the sense you are working in a good cause in a secret place, unacknowledged. Which, in itself, is a kind of safety."

Le Carré has announced that he will be donating his prize money to Médecins Sans Frontières ('Doctors Without Borders'), which provides medical aid to people living in conflict zones as well as countries affected by endemic diseases. 

The spy-turned-writer has had a history of turning down awards. In 2011 he asked the Man Booker Prize committee to withdraw his name from the competition, as he claimed that he does not compete for literary awards. 

Previous Olof Palme Prize recipients include American economist and military analyst Daniel Ellsberg, Swedish-Czechoslovakian social worker Emerich Roth and Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan.

A Canadian has never won the prize.

Le Carré will receive the award during a ceremony in Stockholm on Jan. 30, 2020. 

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