John LeCarré's extraordinary career as a novelist has ended with his death. I have learned some new things about him from obituaries and reminiscences that have been published in the last few days. I discovered him at the same time that most of the world did: in 1964, when I was 17, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold hit the western world with the impact of a small nuclear weapon. From then until the end of the Cold War I believe that I read each of his books roughly at the time that it came out, and beginning in 1978, when I taught my own lecture course for the first time, I found ways to work him into my teaching. It was in the 1980s when finally realized what the underlying point of his Cold War thrillers was--of which more later. In the thirty years since the fall of the wall that was the scene of the opening and final scenes of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, I read his books more intermittently, and I'm sorry right now that I don't have more of them in my personal library upon which to draw. By by the last decade, at the latest, it was clear that he had found a new theme. He emerged, for me, as the critical western historical novelist of the 20th and 21st centuries, because he identified the most serious human diseases of both the Cold War era and the very different era that has succeeded it. Both of them related to a central problem of human existence: individual allegiance to a greater good.
LeCarré's own career as a spy had soured him on the profession, and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (whose plot I will have to give away--spoiler alert), showed his disillusionment. Alec Leamas, its protagonist, is a hard-drinking, burned out agent who has watched the whole network the British Secret Service has established within East Germany (or "the Zone," as he insists on calling it, since Britain and the NATO alliance didn't recognize it as a country), fall one by one to East German counterintelligence, led by an ex-Nazi, Hans-Dieter Mundt. I didn't realize when I read Spy that LeCarré' had laid the foundation for it in an earlier, little known book, Call For the Dead, in which Mundt, then working in London, had killed several people, and nearly killed LeCarré's most famous creation, George Smiley, who played a background role in Spy. Back in London after watching his last agent shot at the wall, Leamas meets Control, the never-named head of the service who became the tragic hero of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy about a dozen years later. Control convinces him to "take another crack" at Mundt. To do so, Leamas plays the role of a drunken, violent, disillusioned ex-agent, whom East German agents eventually try to recruit to tell them what he can about British intelligence and its assets in their homeland. This eventually leads him into East Germany.
The man behind his recruitment, it turns out, is Lens Fiedler, Mundt's Jewish deputy, whose family first fled to Canada under the Nazis, but who returned, dedicated Communists that they were, to help build the new socialist Utopia. Fiedler has watched the destruction of Leamas's network from a different angle. He has managed to identify some of these agents, but Mundt has managed to find ways to kill them before he could interrogate them. Fiedler now suspects that Mundt is himself a British agent, the source of Leamas's best intelligence on the East German secret service istelf--recruited at the end of Mundt's stationing in Britain, when he had managed somehow to slip out of the country even though he was wanted for murder. Leamas quietly encourages Fiedler's suspicions, partly by telling him that they could not be true. This, we realize, is the whole point of Control's operation--to get Fiedler to take down Mundt by validating his suspicions.
In the novel's shattering climax, played out at Mundt's trial for treason, Leamas, and we, learn that he has been played all along by his own side. Using Leamas's younger lover Liz Gold--an idealistic, Jewish British Communist whom he met on his first job after leaving the Service--Mundt at the trial manages to show that Leamas is still working for the Service and has in fact come on a mission to destroy Mundt. Fiedler becomes the villain of the piece in the eyes of the East Germans, and Mundt is saved from his suspicions. In return he promises to let Leamas and Liz (who had been lured to East Germany under false pretenses so that she could testify) escape back over the Wall. But Mundt hates Liz for her Jewishness, and guards shoot her as she climbs up the wall. George Smiley, suddenly emerging on the other side of the wall, calls upon Leamas to jump to the western side, but he does not. Instead he climbs down on the other side, almost forcing the East German guards to shoot him so that he can die with Liz. They are, as the last image of the book makes clear, two lowly individuals caught up in a great ideological struggle, crushed between the two great rivals of the East and West.
When I read that book at 17 in the midst of the Cold War, I felt that Leamas at the end had had to give up his role in the struggle, without questioning its broader purpose--which he defends, a bit too desperately, in his last conversation with Liz just before their deaths. It was much later that I realized LeCarré was asking whether the struggle had any real meaning for the average person at all. The clue came from the plot of Spy, but also from that of his other masterpiece, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and really, I saw, from all the Cold War novels. The issues that the plots turned on never had any relevance to anyone but t he spies themselves. A British or Soviet or East German "mole"--a foreign spy within their own service--never provided any information, in these books, except information about his own spy service. Their deadly game was like a war between Mafia families, and had even less impact on anyone else's life, except those like Liz Gold drawn in as innocent bystanders.
That point became more explicit in The Russia House, published ironically in 1989, and based upon a key true episode of the Reagan era. During the 1980s, the US spent billions (and planned to spend billions more) based on a gross overestimate of the accuracy of Soviet missiles--an overestimate that suggested that the whole US deterrent was vulnerable to a first strike. In real life, two prized agents of the US within the Soviet mission in the UN--code-named Top Hat and Fedora--had told their handlers that the Soviet ICBMs were nowhere near as accurate as we had thought. So devastating was that information to US defense planners that they concluded that Top Hat and Fedora were double agents and henceforth discounted their information. That theory in turn collapsed when the Soviets caught Top Hat and Fedora spying, brought them back to the USSR, and executed them. In The Russia House, an anonymous Russian operative presents a British private citizen with a manuscript revealing what Top Hat and Fedora had said--that Soviet missiles were nowhere near as accurate as US intelligence thought. But as a condition of providing the material, the Russian--who, standing in for LeCarré', has grasped the secret of the Cold War struggle--demands that the Brit release it publicly, rather than turn it over to intelligence services who will find a way to pooh-pooh it because it threatens their own mission! Alas, the novel's protagonist doesn't manage to make this happen, but meanwhile, as The Russia House climbed the best seller lists, the USSR collapsed, and we found ourselves in a new era.
Within a little more than a decade, LeCarré had found his new theme. The protagonists of his new books became relatively ordinary men and women who, out of either idealism or simple chance, learn about some private wrongdoing. In The Constant Gardener, (2001), a British diplomat (not a spy) named Justin Quayle suffers the murder of his wife in Kenya. He eventually finds that she was killed by a major drug company, after she had discovered that they had conducted a fatal medical experiment on some Kenyans. It turns out, however, that the drug company has far too much influence around the world--including on the British government--to be called to account. (I remember one reviewer who made another interesting argument: that such companies were so impervious to criticism that the murder of the wife would have been entirely unnecessary.) Similarly, in Our Kind of Traitor(2010), a British academic named Perry Makepiece on a Caribbean holiday meets a Russian oligarch who wants to use Makepiece as a conduit to British intelligence. The oligarch, Dima Krasnov, wants to buy some international protection from a rival oligarch by providing information on criminal activities. It turns out, however, that Krasnov's rival has more influence in Britain than he does, and the story ends very badly for both Krasnov and Makepiece. Some of the other later books reminded me of The Wire. Anyone who has any integrity, who takes his job seriously, and who tries to do the right thing is likely to be seriously screwed over.
The world of spies was only one small corner of the world of the Cold War, and certainly one of the more dysfunctional corners. The allegiance that world demanded of the spies and of us all could be very cruel, and a new generation in the western world and in the east bloc as well rebelled against it and left that world. Yet the new world they created, LeCarré ultimately felt, was worse. Like Balzac comparing the 1830s to the Napoleonic era, he concluded that without the value of service to the state, a pure selfish individualism had taken over, with disastrous consequences. LeCarré left behind one more prediction. Donald Trump, he said, seemed to him a carbon copy of his own father, a con man whom he immortalized in A Perfect Spy. For that reason he was convinced that Trump would eventually turn out to have no assets at all. I will be watching to see if he was right.