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Friday, October 13, 2017

LeCarré Looks Back

John LeCarré has been a major figure in my literary landscape since 1964, when I read his sensational best-seller, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold.  That was in fact his third book, but his first big success, and it established him as a major Cold War novelist.  I discovered later that Spy (as I shall call it) had used an interesting literary device.  It was in fact a kind of sequel to an earlier, less successful novel, Call For the Dead, which had introduced the character of British spy George Smiley, and the German Hans-Dieter Mundt, who had worked for a while in Britain, committed several murders, and returned to Germany to become (by the time of Spy) the head of East German intelligence.  It turned out theta LeCarré, real name David Cornwall, had been a British spy himself, but he left the Secret Service in the 1960s.   After writing three stand-alone books in the next ten years, LeCarré revived Smiley (who had been a minor character in Spy) in his 1974 masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, dealing with the hunt for a Soviet mole at the highest levels of British intelligence.  Tinker, Tailor spawned two sequels completing the story of Smiley's duel with Karla, his Soviet counterpart.  During the 1980s he wrote The Little Drummer Girl, about Israelis and Palestinians; A Perfect Spy, in which he re-created his father, a con man, as the father of another treacherous British spy; and The Russia House, based on a true case of corrupted intelligence during the Reagan years--just as Tinker Tailor  was based on the case of the real defector Kim Philby.  Then the Cold War came to an end, and LeCarré went in another direction.

I do not mean to put off my faithful readers for whom all this may be new, but if you have never read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I must urge you to stop reading now, go to your local library (or to abebooks.com), and get it.  It is one of the most brilliant and provocative thrillers ever written, complete with one of the most shocking denouements, and I cannot do what I want to do today without giving away the key to the plot.  If cold war thrillers will never be your style, I suppose you may as well go ahead; but I feel both sad and deeply envious for anyone who still has this book ahead of him or her. I feel the same way about Tinker, Tailor, although it is a somewhat longer and more difficult read.  The reason for all this is that LeCarré has now published a new sequel to Spy, A Legacy of Spies, which I want to discuss--more as a literary critic than an historian, although this post will have historical points.  And I can't do it justice without giving away a great deal about Spy.

The title character in Spy was Alec Leamas, a hard-drinking British agent, who at the beginning of the book watches his last agent inside East Germany shot as he tries to cross the relatively new Berlin Wall into West Berlin.  The killing is the handiwork of Hans Dieter Mundt, who years earlier, serving his country in London, had murdered an agent and her husband--and nearly murdered George Smiley--but somehow managed to escape before being apprehended.  Leamas now returns to London, and the mysterious Control--the head of the Service until his death years later, just before the main action of Tinker, Tailor begins--suggests to him that they "take another crack at Mundt."  Leamas agrees.  He leaves the Service, and finds work in a small public library.  There he meets Lis Gold, a pretty young woman who happens to be a Communist, and they become lovers.  He drinks heavily, behaves erratically, and then, without warning, beats up his grocer, and serves some months in prison.  When he gets out he keeps drinking, and then is approached, indirectly, by East German intelligence, who want him to defect.  Eventually, he does.

Brought to East Germany, Leamas is interrogated by Mundt's deputy and rifle, Fiedler, whose Jewish parents had returned to East Germany after 1945 because they were Communists.  He is Mundt's rival in part because Mundt is an ex-Nazi who has not changed his views about Jews.  Fiedler wanted to talk to Leamas because he suspected Mundt of having become a British agent after being arrested for the murders he had committed in London.  Leamas, it becomes clear, has prepared various stories that will convince Fiedler that he is right. Leamas thinks he is arranging for Mundt's removal, and probablyi his execution, as a British spy.  He establishes a kind of personal bond with Fiedler, who is portrayed as a man of good will and genuine feeling.

Eventually Mundt is indeed arrested and put on trial, with Fiedler in the role of prosecutor.  Leamas continues to insist--as he believes--that Mundt was never a British agent, but the evidence has mounted that he was.  Then, in the midst of the trial, who should appear, to Leamas' astonishment, to Lis Gold, who has been brought to East Germany as part of a Communist exchange program.  On the stand, she is forced to reveal that she has been visited by George Smiley and another British official since Leamas's department and that she suddenly received a paid-for lease for her flat.  Leamas's cover is exploded, Mundt is saved, and Fiedler is obviously headed for execution.  Then, Leamas realizes that his mission, all along, has been the reverse of what he thought: he has been sent to save Mundt from Fiedler, not to get revenge on Mundt. Mundt is, indeed, a British spy.

And for this reason, Mundt puts Leamas and Liz in a car to drive to East Berlin, where they will cross over the wall.  On the way, in a brilliant scene, Leamas tries desperately to convince Liz, and himself, that all this really is necessary because of Mundt's value to British intelligence.  But she is not convinced, and in his heart, Leamas isn't either.  She also cannot understand why Mundt would let her return to Britain.  Her intuition is apt.  As they climb up the wall, she is shot by one of the sentries.  Leamas pauses literally at the top of the wall, with Smiley screaming at him to jump from the other side. Instead, he climbs back down next to Liz, and is shot and killed himself.

The novel shows how two people are caught in the great Cold War struggle and destroyed.  But there is another level to it, and nearly all LeCarré's spy writing, which did not occur to me until much later.  Never in LeCarré's books do the intrigues of the spies, on both sides, mean anything to anyone but each other.  Nearly all the information they seek and the operations they run relate to their own loyalties and disloyalties.  They live and die playing a deadly game of interest to no one but themselves.

A Legacy of Spies (hereafter Legacy, picks up the story of Spy  at some unspecified moment in the relatively recent past.  Its exact date is never given away, but based on the ages of some of the characters I would put it early in the 21st century, that is, at least 10 years ago.  Its protagonist is another old friend, Peter Guillam, who had a brief role in Spy and a much larger one in Tinker, Tailor, as a protege of Smiley's.  Guillam, it suddenly occurred to me for the first time, is pretty clearly LeCarré himself.  They are about the same age and share (from what I have been told) a great interest in the opposite sex.  As the book opens Guillam is living in retirement in France, but the Service contacts him to help deal with a lawsuit.  The suit has been filed by two new characters, the illegitimate son and daughter, respectively, of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold--two characters we never learned about in Spy. They want damages for their parents' deaths, and in the entirely new climate of post Cold War Britain, they may get them.  Guillam realizes that the government has settled on him as a logical candidate to take the rap. 

To write Legacy, LeCarré uses the same technique that he used to write Spy a year or two after Call for the Dead: creating new characters and plot lines out of gaps left in an earlier work.  We learn a whole new story of how Mundt was captured and recruited as a British agent.  We learn much  more about Leamas's network of agents in East Berlin.  We learn a lot more about Liz Gold, whom Guillam, it turns out, had briefly courted as well.  And that involves some fascinating scenes. No one is more aware than LeCarré of the huge differences between the world of the 1960s and our own--yet when he dexcribes Liz's brief romance with Guillam, she becomes very much a 21st-century young woman, not the reserved, proper girl we met in Spy.  Leamas, seen in flashbacks, is far more emotional and loquacious than the stolid cold warrior  of Spy.  Of course, younger readers would probably have trouble accepting their old portraits--but they were true to life all the same.

Legacy ends suddenly and equivocally, without telling us what happened to the lawsuit.  LeCarré is now 86 and he indicated in a New York Times interview that this book might be his last, but a sequel to this one could easily be in the cards.  It would allow him to fill out another new plot line he introduced: that Control and Smiley decided to recruit Mundt to in the hope that he would rise high enough in the esteem of Soviet intelligence to be able to tell them the identity of the mole they suspect is hiding in their own service.  There was never a hint of such a mole in Spy, but that has not stopped LeCarré from adding this new dimension. We shall see if that part of the story also gets fleshed out.

Meanwhile, the books LeCarré has written since the end of the Cold War do drive home the enormous differences between its world and our own. In those days the state reigned supreme in East and West, exerting extraordinary claims on soldiers, spies and citizens alike in the pursuit of something bigger.  The books were, among other things, a commentary on the excesses of civic virtue. By contrast, civic virtue is nowhere to be found in books like The Constant Gardener, A Most Wanted Man, Our Kind of Traitor, and A Delicate Truth.  Now Russian oligarchs, greedy corporations and and privatized intelligence groups seem to rule the world, and they grind honest individuals to powder just as the Cold War did Leamas and Liz.  In just a few decades we have gone from a world ruled by ideology to one ruled by the self-interest of the powerful.  LeCarré has documented that very well, and that is probably his greatest achievement.


Energyflow said...

You are an astute observer of an astute observer. My British mother, 1930 birth, now dead, loved his books. An antii clancy where jingoism 19th century style reigns, Independence Day type films. If it were not so dangerous I suspect dozens of bankers 'suicided' in recent years or as I read during the recent presidential campaign, democratic operatives who had dirt on Clinton and wanted to go public being killed during mysterious armed robberies cold become a similar genre. World of power in govt., politics, corporations is very messy. Look at this Weinstein affair. He may have slept with half of Hollywood starletts, getting thnm careers, funnelled Wall Street money to democratic campaigns by illegal routes. You have mentioned Dark Money on right wing. A book on Soros evil network would be a wonderful thriller similar to ex sientologists telling a harrowing survival tale. The world is brutal. Politics is like a religious sect killing its disloyal comrades, stalin style. Nowadays as you noted it is all about money and power, oligarchs and so on sometimes clothed as ideology, as with Koch, Clinton, Soros.

Aside on Trump. I suppose his style remains same. He sees America like he did his Trump inc. He needs a strong brand. For that he needs a personality cult with symbols. The flag, patriotism is number one. My country right or wrong. This is the uniting factor in coming crisis for a divided country(see NFL anthem thing) Hypnotize them like in a sect, to overcome all the differences. Hitler, Stalin, Mssolini even Bush II shortly, did this well. The fatherly leader wrapped in the flag. Our boys have died for this, etc. The old leader of the generational concept, coming in at crisis, with an intuitive feel of creating unity, regardless of political focus. He is a magical manipulator of moods, will eventually become agreeable to everyone, media, banks, military, minorities as well as whites and go after a big cause, Iran, North Korea and if he dares Russia and China. He is determined to be historical success, not Obama, Filmore, forgotten mild mannered nice guys. Trump will do what it takes to make his mark. He has gone back on all promiises he gave to base of poor whites to get elected except a few like obamacare, wall to mexico. The rich will get much richer. Wall street, military rules. Likely USA will go down in flames. Obama held military back, gave in to banks. Nothing seems to change but this is similar to Reagan, Bush II. The oligarchic system allows an actor to have a stage, Prez, and play director for a time. In Russia, China, personality cults are more real, less fictional than in West where it is just a facade for the system. Putin has formed country in own image post soviet. But Trump could be the genius who rides the wave of power all the way. Give deep state its war, people their unifying cause, even if it results in end of US power militarily, USD hegemony and then become himself personal arbiter of new country rising from ashes of global power to become 19th century traditional country he really wanted. Kill the disease, save the patient. Debt jubilee, social welfare state dead, constitutional convention with states rights expanded so that left and right can live as desired in own fiefdoms without offense. Collapse from an idiot genius president( court fool ruling country). Similar unexpdctedbresult of master manipulators with endless plot turns as with Le Carre. Maybe IMF loans at exorbitant rates from Russian gold would rebuild American infrastructure.

Bozon said...


Great, very interesting post.

I only saw the movie...

Re going from an age of ideology to one of self interest, while I am not quite sure of the distinction you are drawing, I doubt that self interest is a replacement for what had been called ideology, or that what has been called ideology will end...

I had thought that Smithian Wealth of Nations capitalism had itself been both rational self interest (even Ayn Randian self interest), the invisible hand..., laissez faire..., and all of that...and very much also an ideology.

All the best