John Le Carré’s novel ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ seemed to emerge fully formed from the Berlin sky, a spy novel of rare quality. In his newest work, ‘A Legacy of Spies’, Le Carré revisits the novel that brought him fame. For the hardened Le Carré fan, it is a chance to revisit much-loved characters such as George Smiley, Alec Leamas and Peter Guillam. For the uninitiated, it is an elegant and accomplished introduction to Le Carré’s fictional universe.
In ‘The Spy who Came in from the Cold’, Le Carré adopted the taut style and consistency of tone mastered by his predecessors in the tradition of the Great English Espionage Novel, John Buchan and Ian Fleming. But in place of characters of broad-brush daring and brio like Richard Hannay and James Bond, Le Carré gives us little, mean men, pygmies writ large in human form, and an atmosphere of drab decrepitude and moral corruption. Spies are reduced to “a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors … pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” Gone are the extravagant and adventurous plotlines of the past, replaced by an austere formal sensibility, stripped of all embellishment that might delay the novel’s brutal and fiendish momentum.
In ‘The Spy’, we first meet Alec Leamas as head of MI6’s Berlin Station as he returns to London for his debrief. He is a washed-up Cold Warrior, his networks all rolled up by the East German secret service. He is told by his masters, Smiley and Guillam, that he has one more mission to fulfil: to destroy the East German spymaster Hans Dieter Mundt, the very man who killed his agents. He is asked to stay ‘out in the cold’ a little longer.
The plan does not work, or at least, appears not to work. Leamas is exposed as a double because he forms a compromising attachment to the beautiful but naive Elizabeth Gold, a member of the Communist party. But that isn’t the truth – their relationship is in fact the plot’s unstable centre, out of which springs a trap with a mechanism of perfect and awful symmetry.
The trap draws tighter and tighter, not, as we are first led to believe, by virtue of Leamas’ deception, but because of the real bond that develops between Leamas and Gold. And it is the truth of their love that gives the sterile layers of cunning and secrecy a kind of grotesque vitality. The operation is a complete and unqualified success, although the reader is left empty, drained alongside the Berlin Wall. I don’t want to spoil it any more than to say that ‘A Legacy of Spies’ picks up where ‘The Spy’ leaves off.
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It gives the full story behind ‘Operation Windfall’, a detail left out of the tightly woven original. And we are asked again to judge whether the cost in human life was too great. Smiley’s protégé Peter Guillam is called out of retirement because of the threat of legal action to be taken against the British Secret Service by Gold’s and Leamas’ children, who believe that their parents were ensnared by their secret masters.
The book is punctuated throughout by scenes set in graveyards, as if to remind us (or the author) that the Cold War is over and utterly gone and the generation that fought it is dead too. Peter Guillam is recalled to a very different secret world. Everything has changed. Guillam cannot hide his disgust at the services’ new headquarters on Millbank: “This monstrosity. This Welcome to Spyland Beside the Thames.” Spies are even subjected to the humiliation of parliamentary oversight. Guillam is told that he is to appear before an “All-Party parliamentary committee of inquiry”. He is interrogated by the lawyers the Service employs to defend itself from legal action on historic cases, another humiliation for the patrician spy.
Peter Guillam is instructed to read through the old case files of ‘Operation Windfall’ so that he can mount his defence. And it is here that the novel really begins to sing. The old voices of Le Carre’s Cold War novels mysteriously awaken – Bill Haydon, the arch traitor, Jim Prideaux, his lover betrayed in ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’. On eloquent display is the mastery of tradecraft that must have made David Cornwell (aka Le Carré) an extremely able spy in his previous incarnation as a real life agent, in Bern and then Bonn.
Le Carré is sadly at his most unconvincing when he reintroduces his richest creation, George Smiley. No longer the complex and inscrutable figure of the earlier novels, he has metamorphosed into a kind of pompous Europhile saint, lobbing bland and rather obvious jibes at Theresa May et al. But in general, he is an assured guide, leading us gently into his own literary past, and into Britain’s immediate Cold War past.
For like Peter Guillam, we too are returning to our own first reading of ‘The Spy’, revising our initial judgements as we are drawn further and further into its labyrinth. Le Carré asks us again: was it worth it?
He wants to warn us, almost sixty years on, that, although our victory in the Cold War could not have been more complete, it was not a victory without its tragic underside. But we are also left in no doubt that the cause was justified, that the fight against Communism was a moral project.
‘A Legacy of Spies’ shows that John Le Carré still remains the most eloquent conscience of Western power, prodding us when we stray from our path, and all the while reminding us that liberty worth its salt exacts an enormous cost which our secret counterparts continue to pay.
A Legacy of Spies – by John le Carré. Published by Penguin. Hardback £12.99.