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John Le Carré’s Latest Depicts A Spy Who Should Have Stayed In The Cold


Former British spy and famed author John Le Carré is back with a new book called A Legacy of Spies. This is basically the story-within-the-story that was originally told in Le Carré’s seminal 1963 Cold War novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. A Legacy of Spies also interweaves elements of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It’s being billed as the return of illustrious spymaster George Smiley.

The new book opens with a quote attributed to German philosopher Martin Heidegger: “Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one.” That’s kind of the highlight, because the story basically goes downhill from there. That’s no offense to Le Carré, who is clearly a gifted writer and deserves real respect for authoring a book in his mid-80s.

A Legacy Of Spies is told from the first-person point of view of one Peter Guillam as he recounts the tale (or, more accurately, is made to recount the tale) of top-secret Operation Windfall mounted against East German Stasi intelligence services in the late 1950s and early ’60s. The Stasi, or Ministerium für Staatssicherheit (Ministry for State Security), was an iron-fisted and paranoid spy apparatus that dominated East German life for decades prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall. The book is basically one big drawing back of a curtain on a slow-motion nightmare of broken lives in the intelligence community during the Cold War. It ties up the loose ends and fills in the backstory of prior novels.

Le Carré decided to take Guillam from being Smiley’s left hand to the main narrator because he wanted to tell the story from another perspective, plus Smiley has gone missing in this novel. The narrator is speaking in old age from his retirement in rural France as he goes back through the doomed mission. The plot revolves around the tragic consequences that cost Guillam his colleague and friend. This sounds like a promising premise, but there’s one major problem.

The crucial flaw with A Legacy of Spies is that Le Carré tells you the ending right at the beginning. You already know most of what happens from his previous books then, further, from what he states outright in the beginning of A Legacy Of Spies. Essentially, Le Carré plays spoiler to his own book’s plot. This deflates the suspense and makes you rather less interested in what will happen in the course of the denouement-type events described thereafter. The book is mainly readouts of retrieved classified correspondence and snippets from the narrator’s recollections. Sorry, but that’s drier than a Bedouin desert in July.

A Legacy of Spies starts near the end of the events it describes, beginning in medias res (but more to the end than middle). In this respect it’s similar to Le Carré’s book Our Game. The difference is that in Our Game, which also involves a missing spy and a sensitive mission gone wrong, there’s much more suspense and it is bolstered by a haunting, provocative atmosphere. Our Game really stays on your mind, especially its haymaker-to-the-face conclusion, whereas A Legacy Of Spies is ultimately somewhat forgettable.

In addition, A Legacy of Spies breaks the cardinal rule of storytelling: show, don’t tell. There’s a lot of exposition in the form of convoluted conversations instead of actual, you know, action. The book basically begins with a massive, multi-chapter inquisition full of sarcastic repartee and prolonged back-and-forth over obscure recollections. That’s a really boring and overwrought way to begin a book.

The tone of A Legacy Of Spies is both wry and clinical at times. It takes a lot of shots at modern espionage, implying that it is overly bureaucratic and oppressively utilitarian and impersonal. The personal and vocational conflict between the protagonist and his older generation versus the new, younger know-it-alls is explored to quite an extent. Le Carré also mocks the modern national security state with its body scanners and “humiliating” procedures like requiring that all people remove their shoes.

“Somewhere along the road between Cambridge Circus and the Embankment, something has died, and it isn’t just the squeak of trolleys,” Peter laments about the lack of conviviality in the new spy headquarters. Le Carré also takes a dig at “modern Britain” as his protagonist Peter sits in an interrogation with a female intelligence operative whose specialty is historical records but who seems fairly uninterested in history and the “old hat” nostalgia of the operations he ran during the Cold War. “History as an expressionless woman with short hair, brown eyes and no make-up. And nobody smiling any more, except me,” Peter sneers.

Le Carré isn’t afraid to critique and mock the West as it fought Communism, describing a group of government officials at one point in the book, for example, as “Warsaw Pact espiocrats” and at another illustrating the show business angle of the security state. “A Service marches on its reputation and its good looks. Rendition, torture, playing footsie in the woodshed with murderous psychopaths: it’s bad for the public image, bad for trade,” Laura, the modern spy who manages the history section of the spy agency, tells him cynically.

So what happens in the book? It basically recounts what already happened years ago. The novel starts with a kind of executive summary where Peter talks about growing up in the shadow of his dead soldier father and eventually being recruited into the intelligence service. At first he has a “vision of myself as a secret warrior in my dead father’s image.” He goes on to learn old-school spy tricks like handing off packets in crowded streets, signalling “joes” (assets), and leaving secret messages in mailboxes. There’s no modern NSA spy grid at work here, just old-fashioned skullduggery.

Once he’s recruited into the real gritty work by spymaster Smiley, the main character is told “we do feel it’s an important job, as long as one cares about the end, and not too much about the means.”

The book goes on to tell the story of the botched Operation Windfall, but as mentioned it consists of entirely too many transcriptions of long-ago conversations and old letters involving his colleague Alec Leamas, Elizabeth Gold, and an East German woman codenamed Tulip. Where’s the part where the novel actually happens apart from a post-mortem of what already happened? Life can be really awful and stuff went bad in the Cold War for all involved, that we get. But when is the part that really shocks us or changes perceptions?

About halfway through the recollected action picks up a little, but it falls flat, since it’s all far in the past and the end result is already known. It’s hard to hold out hope for Tulip and Leamas as they traverse through the snow for the German border when you already know they’ll be biting the dust in their own separate, tragic ways. Meanwhile a traitor lurks deep within the ranks, ensuring the slow burn of everything they’ve planned.

Perhaps one of the most interesting things surrounding A Legacy Of Spies is the context. Le Carré has recently made headlines with some of his political views. Just recently in a rare public appearance promoting the book he said the presidency of Donald Trump parallels the rise of fascism and totalitarianism in 1930s Germany, Spain, and Japan. According to Le Carré, “something truly, seriously bad is happening.”

Le Carré expanded on his views recently in an interview on CBC Radio’s “Writers & Company” on September 10. “Social democracy is being assailed from east and west at the same time,” he said, adding that the Cold War world was united by a fear of Communism but the current global situation is a “haunted space.” With a lack of civilizational drive, we’re basically fighting ourselves, according to Le Carré.

Le Carré said even the espionage done against Communism ultimately struck him as redundant because the advance of technology and the arms race that forced the USSR into financial insolvency were bound to bring it down eventually anyway. He’s had a long interest in Russia and believes there’s been “a complete failure of the West” in terms of what to do in a post-Communist world. (Fact check: true.) He also abhors “quite sinister” Brexit and Trump, who he calls a “childish Caligula” with “very unpleasant cohorts.” But we all know everything was sunshine and roses prior to Brexit and Trump, right?

In his view, the whole Trump presidency is an embarrassing sham perpetrated by the elites. “These are revolutions led from above,” Le Carré said of Trump, adding that while grievances were in many cases legitimate, the cure was false. The current conflict with Russia is about personality in many ways, Le Carré says. He calls Putin an “unprincipled spy” and Angela Merkel a “strong, principled women,” so we should know where his sympathies lie. This is Merkel he’s talking about, a scold who has sold her country out to the forces of globalization, while Germany’s native birthrate plummets to the depths of Hades.

Most interestingly, however, Le Carré says the leaderless Trump foreign policy “can easily be annexed by the CIA and the military complex.” Intelligence agencies determining foreign policy is a “pretty awful thing” and Le Carré said he suspects “it is happening already” because of Trump’s incompetence and Republican “spinelessness.” This should worry anyone who doesn’t like things like well-padded black budgets overthrowing foreign governments and people with murky intentions having control over the world’s most powerful military.

In a country where people running newspapers like The Washington Post are also CIA contractors (looking at you, Jeff Bezos), Le Carré’s contention isn’t so far out. Add in the fact that robots will eventually be in charge and you have exponential worries. If we’re living in a world run by a spy-run superpower, as Le Carré opines, it’s all the more reason to take his novels to heart about the human costs and devastating miscalculations that can easily happen in the secret world.

As the book ends, Peter is confronted by the son of his former friend, who accuses him of all sorts of things. “‘You’re all sick. All you spies. You’re not the cure, you’re the f***ing disease. Jerk-off artists, playing jerk-off games, thinking you’re the biggest f***ing wise guys in the universe. You’re nothings, hear me? You live in the f***ing dark because you can’t handle the f***ing daylight.” In case the subtlety escapes you, this is not a pro-spy book.

At the book’s finale, Smiley muses on why they did it all and went to such lengths in the clandestine clash with the Soviets:

‘So was it all for England, then?’ he resumed. ‘There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission – if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.’

But the question still remains, which Europe, and to what end and what vaunted “reason”? Apparently Merkel’s Europe, given Le Carré’s admiration for Merkel and what she represents. Good luck with that. For Le Carré’s benefit, it bears mentioning that it’s a brave new world and not the era of the comfortable liberalism of the 1950s.

Despite being an unique account of old-school spy craft, A Legacy of Spies is long-winded, dry and pretentious. Speaking frankly, it’s not Le Carré’s best work. I’d recommend Our Game, The Night Manager, The Constant Gardener ,and Le Carré’s earlier books Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Spy Who Came In From The Cold over this one.

“Jesus, what a planet,” the character Alec Leamas remarks at one point. And, I might add, what a depressing and boring book.