A Legacy of Spies

John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies (Penguin Random House)

IN the novel that first made John le Carré’s name, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold are shot dead in 1963 at the newly built Berlin Wall. Leamas had been part of an MI6 operation to protect the identity of a highly placed British asset in the East German Stasi, Hans-Dieter Mundt. Mundt adds his own seal of ruthless authenticity with the murder of Leamas and Gold after the elimination of his deputy, Fiedler, who was about expose him.

Fast forward to an unspecified year – probably about 2000. An operative of George Smiley’s Covert branch of MI6 (the Circus) is recalled to London from retirement on a Breton farm. The offspring of Leamas and Gold are threatening legal action for the deaths of their parents. In the absence of Smiley, the target is Peter Guillam who spends several supervised days revisiting the files, many of which he stole during the operation in 1973 to unmask a suspected double agent. Leamas had long correctly believed that all British operations east of the Iron Curtain were compromised by a Moscow Centre source in London.

The Smiley novels (now nine of them, although in some his appearances are just fleeting) are haunted by real-life, decades-long betrayal by Kim Philby (Bill Haydon at the Circus). Le Carré uses A Legacy of Spies to provide background to the Leamas/Gold/Mundt affair. Now aged 86, he remains a compulsive writer, working every day with a fountain pen and dependent on a typist. His readers will find much that is familiar in this latest book: the intense atmosphere of the Cold War; and, in deference to Smiley, long trawls through the archives.

Guillam extricates himself by absconding and tracking down an ageing Smiley, now pursuing his academic interest in baroque German literature in a Freiburg library. His brief appearance is timely, reminding us of an understated and cerebral, skilled and subtle character who had grappled with the moral ambiguities of his time and trade. Famously, at the end of Smiley’s People and the successful defection of his Soviet rival Karla, he had reluctantly conceded that, yes, he had probably triumphed. In this latest novel, he says something equally profound: that his life’s work was part of ‘leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason’ (p.262). Smiley is, indeed, one of history’s heroic anti-heroes.

Le Carré’s novels have significant meaning as political and social commentary. He has never disguised his unease about the dubious methods used to fight the Cold War, some of which undermined the very democracy the West was supposedly defending. But it would be erroneous to suggest those methods did not reflect broader society. And the attitudes and actions of the lawyers and the self-annointed victims of the Cold War now pursuing Guillam show the clear venality and infantilism of our times. As Le Carré puts it so powerfully, the ‘historic blame game [is] our new national sport. Today’s blameless generation versus your guilty one. Who will atone for our father’s sins even if they weren’t sins at the time?’ (p.31). His contemporary characters are uniformly unappealing.

‘Whose England, which England?’ asks Smiley (p.262). It has been suggested, and with good reason, that this work was possibly influenced by Le Carré’s well-known antipathy to Brexit. Last year’s referendum was a severe blow to those who strove for peace and unity in Europe after its twentieth-century darkness and a monumental defeat for reason. As Smiley put it in another reflective moment (in The Secret Pilgrim), ‘The purpose of my life was to end the time I lived in.’ Were this fictional character still alive, he would be aghast at the potential threat of Brexit to European peace and security.

John le Carré is just one of many thoughtful writers to react with anger to the contempt for history and the lessons of the twentieth century shown by the crassness of contemporary populism. A recent opinion piece in the Guardian described the political sponsors of Brexit as ‘clowns and crypto-fascists’. Many names spring easily to mind. They deny Smiley the purpose of his life and it is no wonder that Le Carré has seen the need to resurrect his memory, presumably (except in the unlikely event of a prequel) for the very last time.

This review was first published in a shorter form in The Witness, 15 November 2017.