A Legacy of Spies, by John le Carre

This 2017 work has a wonderful opening, offering just the perspective, just the framework, that has always fascinated me. A retired spy, Peter Guillam, living in France, is summoned to London. Because certain lawyers are challenging a decision he and his superiors made a generation ago during the Cold War, a decision that resulted in the death at the Berlin Wall of one of their operatives, Alec Leamas, plus an innocent girl, Elizabeth Gold. The lawyers are acting for the two children of those victims.

What I loved so much is this perspective of a mature narrator reviewing a more innocent past, and seeing that past in a new light. Often a more ironic and more introspective light. And in doing so here, le Carre is also revisiting the climax of his first successful espionage novel, A Spy Came in from the Cold. This involved the British penetration of the Soviet and East German spy apparatus, a splendid accomplishment for those times. And that early novel is a highlight of the author’s career, just as the espionage story was the same for Guillam’s career.

But now Guillam also sees the challenge to this past escapade as a challenge to the legitimacy of his entire career. Whereas the new generation sees only the dark side of that operation, and these children of the two victims are seeking justice for the death of their respective parents.

Such questioning is a frequent theme in the author’s other espionage novels. Indeed, his hero Guillam, expresses his own reservations near the end of this tale: “How much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom, would you say, before we cease to feel either human or free?” As a former spy himself, a member of the British Secret Service that is called here the Circus, le Carre has long felt that bringing forward the dark side of espionage is a legitimate way to portray his former profession.

The problem for me is that much of the novel involves flashbacks to memorable events of the Cold War. For Guillam seeks to recall those past events in order to justify them to himself before he faces any tribunal. But the problem is that many of the details of the operation are introduced through official reports of the World War II era, a technique that may help Guillam recall the past but which have no perspective, and which, each time, slows the dramatic flow of the those events.

The result is that we have lost the perspective of the present evaluating the distant past. Instead, the past is evaluating the past. And as Guillam attempts to remember the details of his past effort that is now being challenged, there is a further complication. Because the operation and its aftereffects were quite complicated, and are not easy to follow

This is Le Carre’s 24th novel, most of them espionage novels. And he is 85 years old. One senses that this may be his last such novel, and that he may have used his first spy novel as a crutch to recreate once again the world that he was so much a part of.

One wonders, indeed, if he may also be poking us in the rib, as if to say: here’s another look at that early novel that you were not aware of. But one must also say that this latest work has the intellectual and moral depth that one expects from a le Carre novel. What it lacks is the dramatic tension as the discovery of the operation’s deaths become known. There is one surprise death, but, being in the past, it does not have a major impact. And surely more of the self-doubt and guilt that Guillam now feels in the present should have also existed at the time of the operation. Instead, there may have been sorrow back then at the operation’s failure, but there is no suggested second-guessing of their actions by these gung-ho operatives.

This work offers a behind-the-scenes look at the author’s first successful novel. It thus deepens the moral evaluation of that novel by raising new doubts about the legitimacy of our heroes’ actions. What it also reflects is an elderly author revisiting his past, and finding new depths to explore. As Robert McCrum says in the Guardian: “’Le Carre’s new novel displays a grand old man of English letters conducting a masterclass in the genre he has made his own.”

If this is the last of le Carre’s espionage novels, it is a good way to go out. Even if it lacks intense drama, it probes the impact of a major event that has rested, quietly, within one man’s conscience. That is the legacy that this spymaster now acknowledges. (August, 2019)

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