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The Past Is a Foreign Agent

John le Carré's Cold War fiction stalks a pitiless twenty-first century

For all their vaunted status as legislators of history, a dismaying percentage of writers’ actual work consists in finding synonyms for sweeping abstractions like “the world,” “life,” and “people.” For John le Carré, august chronicler of Cold War espionage, there’s the added challenge of avoiding puns involving ice, snow, and chilly weather. In his new book, A Legacy of Spies, he mostly steers clear of the temptation to refer to thaws, icy tensions, and thin ice, save in re-introducing his most famous hero-spy, the studiously bland George Smiley as “Head of Covert for the ten coldest years of the Cold War.”

Actually, Smiley is largely absent from A Legacy of Spies, but he casts a ponderous shadow over its action, only putting in a grim and weathered appearance at the end just like Luke Skywalker in The Force Awakens. Instead, our narrator is Peter Guillam, a former “secret warrior” and errand boy for British intelligence—the faction le Carré calls “The Circus”—who is summoned out of a bucolic retirement in his native Brittany to face critics of his old handlers’ extrajudicial methodology against the Soviets. It seems MI6 is in a bit of a pickle, on the verge of being taken to court by the grown children of two of the protagonists of le Carré’s epochal 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. “Cold” puns had less clatter then, as did the spy genre’s bread-and-butter of state-sponsored killings, enhanced interrogation, and stiff-buttocked patriotism.

Appetites have changed, at least partially because our conscience is nowhere near as clean, in these days of constant scandal, as when James Bond could sip a martini, seduce a schoolgirl, and blithely dispatch reds without any lasting blemish to his soul. Judging from this novel, marketed as a kind of coda to le Carré’s oeuvre, he is all too aware of the suspicion with which a contemporary audience might regard the bravado of government functionaries, and so A Legacy of Spies registers as a post-op on the covert operations he dramatized in his most famous novels. Le Carré seems to be asking, with Guillam, “how much of our human freedom can we dispense with in the name of freedom, would you say, before we cease to feel either human or free?”

Smiley is an agreeable bloke, a flatfooted and shruggingly devout agent of the Crown whose self-justifications land somewhere between jingoism and subdued nihilism.

The allotments of the human heart as divided between self and country has always been le Carré’s theme, and his characters are measured by their choice between the two. His most successful spies, like Smiley, are meager or frustrated lovers married to their jobs, while those who lustily yield to the flesh are made to suffer for it. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold ended with two star-crossed spies, Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, shot trying to escape through a gap in the barbs around the Berlin Wall; both were victims of Smiley’s machinations, whose moral equivalence with arch-rival Hans-Dieter Mundt (the complexity of which constituted a breakthrough in the genre considering that Sean Connery returned for From Russia with Love that same year) is slightly ameliorated by the fact that Mundt is an ex-Nazi Communist Stasi boogeyman and Smiley is an agreeable bloke, a flatfooted and shruggingly devout agent of the Crown whose self-justifications, in the new book, land somewhere between jingoism (“If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe.”) and subdued nihilism (“Or was it all in the great name of capitalism? God forbid. Christendom? God forbid again.”)

In re-legislating these ancient intrigues, part of le Carré’s mission is making them intelligible to someone like Alec Leamas’s vengeful son Christoph, who laughs off Guillam’s appeal to green and pleasantry: “Patriotism is dead, man. Patriotism is for babies. If this case goes international, patriotism as justification will not fly. Patriotism in mitigation is officially fucked.” (You can always tell le Carré’s villains because they despoil the King’s English with “man” and “fuck.”) Much of the book’s drama is archival, as Guillam compares his memory to the surviving reports pertaining to “Operation Windfall” while dealing with today’s effeminate, human rights-obsessed lawyers and otherwise tracking the distance between the tragedies of the past and the farces of the present. The entire cast of 1974’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy returns in some form, and we’re treated to the requisite exchanges of microfilm, MacGuffins hidden in flowerpots, women of negotiable virtue, and tense drives in Trabants—maybe it sounds like faint praise, but nobody writes an overheating East German automobile like le Carré.

So the book satisfies our nostalgic yearning for GDR cloak and dagger, and there are sequences that positively throb with square-jawed, “good war” dadliness to the point of almost becoming a sort of Cold War karaoke. But le Carré is obviously committed to interrogating that nostalgia—up to a point, anyway. Guillam’s rivals for the privilege of re-writing history include a left-wing rouge’s gallery of priggish communists, repressed homosexuals, small-minded litigious hacks, smug opportunists with rings on their fingers, and unsexual secretaries. In a flashback, the late Alec Leamas sums up the prevailing postwar disillusionment when he is heard to complain “about what a shitload of weirdos the Circus is these days, and where are all the good guys from the war, and how the only thing the top floor cares about is kissing the American arse.” Now it is Guillam who is the dinosaur, scandalized by the suggestion that The Circus’s wartime actions should be subjected to the moralism of a generation whose impulses have never been checked by fealty to the state. But he decides to play ball, entering into a damned-if-I-do mentality that is palpably le Carré’s own rejoinder to the times:

When you’re cornered, when you’ve tried all the tricks in your locker and they haven’t worked, there aren’t many ways left to wriggle. You can spin the story within the story. I’d done that, and it hadn’t worked. You can try a partial hangout and hope it ends there. I’d done that too, but it hadn’t ended there. So you accept that you’ve reached the end of the road, and the only option left to you is to be bold, tell the truth, or as little as you can get away with, and earn a few Brownie points for being a good boy—none of which struck me as a very likely outcome, but it might at least get me my passport back.

A Legacy of Spies is a defensive book, as well as a good one. John le Carré is of course a pseudonym for David Cornwell, himself a former consul of the Secret Intelligence Service, and if we sense Cornwell “wriggling” behind his disguise, it is because he knows that stories can kill, politics co-ops the language of sensationalist fiction, and that the abuses of the globalist West are propped up by legends of Reagan/Thatcher Cold War moxie.

Le Carré appears to object to the elimination of shades of gray in this stark new world.

Much of le Carré’s recent output—notably 2008’s A Most Wanted Man—features the sniffy old guard of European foreign intelligence exhausted by bumbling War on Terror yahoos. And there is a whiff of self-reproach in Smiley’s lament that “[w]e were never pitiless. We had the larger pity. Arguably it was misplaced. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. We did not know it then.” But there is also an indignation that the past should be so uncharitably rummaged through by these up-jumped elitists; Guillam’s uneasy navigation between rationalization and the official record recalls the author’s own recoil at John le Carré: The Biography, at one point telling its author Adam Sisman, “So far as I can gather, it’s going to be all warts and no all,” before releasing his own score-settling memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, just twelve months later. It’s not just fuddy-duddy notions of propriety that le Carré appears to object to either, it’s the elimination of shades of gray in this stark new world where partisanship trumps patriotism and implication overshadows the individual actions by which an individual used to be judged.

He has a point. John le Carré’s best work pretended to amorality. Clearing out anything resembling a coherent political critique made room both for the reader and for characters who were so much more than carriers for sectarian commentary. His masterpiece The Little Drummer Girl, with its Mossad-driven plot and indoctrination of a flighty left-wing prima donna into a hardened honey trap forced to become bait for a Palestinian terrorist, would be all-but-inconceivable today. But the depth of character that le Carré is able to wring out of internal contradictions doesn’t just give Flaubert a run for his money—it makes the human being a model of the state in miniature. A Legacy of Spies doesn’t quite rise to the same heights, but it at least holds its backward-looking characters accountable for their yearning after some peace of mind, which for modern readers is as much an impossible dream as James Bond. As in the best of le Carré, the human is discernible inside the machine, even if, for le Carré, it is clear that England is as real as the god of Graham Greene. Books like A Legacy of Spies are worth it because they show how transitory such values really are, and what it might be like to believe in something greater than the self. We won’t write books like it for much longer.