Almost sixty years have passed since George Smiley first appeared in John le Carré’s novel Call for the Dead. And even then the diffident spy felt “pedestrian and old-fashioned,” as though ” . . . he had entered middle age without ever being young.” Just two years later came his apparent defeat in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which ended with Smiley desperately waiting for British agent Alec Leamas to to escape over the Berlin Wall: ” ‘Jump, Alec! Jump, man!’ . . . [Leamas] heard Smiley’s voice from quite close: ‘The girl, where’s the girl?’ Shielding his eyes he looked down at the foot of the wall and at last managed to see her, lying still.” (Both Leamas and the unknowing Liz Gold have been betrayed by Leamas’s spymasters, sacrificed to protect an East German double agent.
Graham Greene called le Carré’s 1963 novel “the best spy story I have ever read,” and its bleak force remains undiminished while Smiley has, of course, endured. Guilt-ridden yet relentless, English literature’s most complex espionage agent soon became both the sage and conscience of his trade. And of his country. For if the two novels mentioned above — along with The Looking Glass War — constitute the early distillation of le Carré’s themes of secrecy and betrayal, loyalty and courage, and the subsequent Karla trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; Smiley’s People) their fleshier incarnation, all are indictments of post-Empire Britain. And of class, always class, which le Carré skewers with lethal accuracy. “His suit was just too light for respectability,” Smiley notes in Call for the Dead of a bureaucrat who is “a barmaid’s idea of a real gentleman.”
And now in A Legacy of Spies, le Carré’s latest novel, “A fresh-faced, bespectacled English public schoolboy of indefinable age in shirt and braces bounces out from behind a table. “I’m Bunny, by the by,” he announces. “Bloody silly name, but it’s followed me around since infancy and I can’t get rid of it.” Bunny, a lawyer for the Service, is about to interrogate (chummily, at first) Smiley’s old protégé Peter Guillam, who has been summoned to London from retirement in Brittany — “to clear up a bit of unpleasantness from the past, dear boy.” The unpleasantness in question is, in fact, the story of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold — for Alec Leamas, it turns out, had a son, and Liz Gold had a daughter. “They have convinced themselves, not without reason, that their respective parents died as a consequence of what appears to have been a five-star-cock-up by this Service, and by you and George Smiley personally,” Bunny explains. “They are seeking full disclosure, punitive damages and a public apology that will name names.”
Guillam, his passport confiscated, must revisit the files on Operation Windfall (conveniently if improbably stored in the original safe house) and reveal all. Because, as Bunny’s colleague puts it, “Once we have the truth, we’ll know how to doctor it.” Le Carré has lost none of his sardonic wit. And his taut descriptions still exude menace and dread, particularly in the flashbacks that bring this novel to life. “Inside Berlin city limits,” Alec Leamas reports in his 1960 debriefing, “but it’s forest, flat roads and flying snow. We pass the old Nazi radio station which is our first marker. The Citroen’s a hundred yards behind us, not enjoying the icy roads. We go into the dip, gathering speed.” Leamas is extracting an agent, code-named Tulip, from East Germany, in a subplot that forms a critical link with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and is expertly interwoven. “In one chair sits George Smiley,” Leamas recalls of the session, soon after Tulip’s escape, in which an enemy agent is turned, “looking the way only George looks when he’s conducting an interrogation: a bit put out, a bit pained, as if life is one long discomfort for him and no one can make it tolerable except just possibly you. And across from George in the other chair sits a powerful blond man of my own age with fresh bruises round his eyes.” Leamas is looking at the man who will soon have him killed.
Peter Guillam is our guide through this maze of interlocking plots, which does indeed lead to Smiley, but not before a child of the past runs Guillam himself to ground. “The face [is] Alec’s, but with pouchy discontent where pain lines should have been. The same pugnacious jaw. In the brown eyes, when they bothered with you, the same flashes of buccaneering charm.” This is Christoph, Alec Leamas’s son and another of le Carré’s masterful character sketches. “You know what? Patriotism is dead, man,” he lectures Guillam. “Patriotism is for babies. If this case goes international, patriotism as a justification will not fly. Patriotism in mitigation is officially fucked. Same as elites. Same as you guys.” Coked up and scruffily menacing, he demands a million euros: “No lawyers, no human rights, no bullshit.” A gun does come into it, in a brilliantly pathetic scene that shows how death might arrive clumsily, with no more purpose than a tantrum. Where his father had courage, Christoph has merely appetite.
But le Carré, clear-eyed as ever, is not casting back to a nobler age. If the narrator of an earlier novel, The Secret Pilgrim, says of Smiley, “He hates nostalgia, even if he’s part of other people’s,” then the same can be said of his creator. In A Legacy of Spies, the glib technocrats of the shiny new Service are wonderfully and contemptuously drawn, but their old-school predecessors are the ones called to account. And, fittingly, by children. For children, in one form or another, have always been central in le Carré’s novels. From Billy Roach, the watchful schoolboy in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, to the vengeful orphans here and, indeed, to Guillam himself, the golden boy molded by Smiley. “Well, now for the reckoning at last,” he concludes, ” . . . did you, George, consciously set out to suppress the humanity in me, or was I just collateral damage too?” And was Guillam’s Cold War a noble cause? “Or were we simply suffering from the incurable English disease of needing to play the world’s game when we weren’t world players any more.” (The question haunts le Carré’s fiction. The enduring appeal of his novels, however, lies not in their philosophy but in their exquisite density of character and place, the result of le Carré’s unrivalled ability to see: winter light after rain, snow on cobblestones, a traitor’s smile. And if A Legacy of Spies is thinner in this sense, the reader, unlike the spy, can always return to the past for pleasure.
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