Thursday, March 31, 2011

582. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John Le Carre

Genre: Espionage, Spy
Rating: 4. Worth a read
Read before: New read
Written: 1900s
Edition: Sceptre 1999

Alec Leamas, a British secret agent, goes on one last assignment before coming in from the cold; he becomes a double agent dedicated to bringing down the head of the Communist intelligence agency in East Germany. All goes according to plan until Leamas finds himself before a secret tribunal and he realises things are not as they seem.

First chapter:
Using the approach of extracting questions from this book is too formulaic and predictable ... there's so much more to this book than what's being set up in the first chapter. What really impressed me instead was the initial warning about cheating and trust:
• Leamas said: "You teach them [agents] to cheat, to cover their tracks, and they cheat you as well." (p16)
"... and Leamas swore, not for the first time, never to trust an agent again." (p16)

Espionage thrillers aren’t really my genre (just think back to my review of The Thirty-Nine Steps), and it’s unfortunate on page 24 I found the 'n' word in the sentence "... ten little n*****s" because otherwise The Spy (short for The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) is in my top ten for 2011. I love the gripping story, the terrific characters, and I never felt at any stage I was being manipulated towards a particular outcome.

The book speaks tellingly of the struggle between democracy and communism, not in an elegant James Bond we're the best and winning side, but in a way that makes it clear that both sides are indistinguishable in methods. I’m no expert about this time period although the world I came of age in was a scant ten years later (the 1970s). I vividly remember the fear of communism (in the media and in the minds of my own parents) and the ‘them’ (the bad guys) and ‘us’ (the good guys). As a na├»ve teenager I refused to believe the simplicity of an argument that wrote off a portion of the world as monsters (‘them’). For me, the “enemy” breathed, loved, raised families, worked—exactly as we did—and a different economic system wasn’t enough to demonise people. Us and them clearly made 'we' in my world.

What I like about The Spy is how well it creates a ‘we’ that is the human race: good people and bad, working to achieve respective goals and, unfortunately when it comes to the the secret service, using identically unprincipled and nasty methods. It’s by no means an admirable world, but it's a world I've come to recognise as the 'real' world.

From the beginning the moral highground of the West is exposed to Leamas as political rhetoric only ("I mean, you've got to compare method with method, and ideal with ideal. I would say that since the war, our methods - ours and those of the opposition - have become much the same. I mean, you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's policy is benevolent ..." (p25) and it's clear the end justifies the means for the West. Neatly, by the end, the empty rhetoric and lies of the Communist regime are exposed and a cringingly stupid view of the West is espoused: "The English! The rich have eaten your future and your poor have given them the food." (p210) And sandwiched between these opposing views is an absorbing story: the tired ageing spy sent on one last mission before he comes in from the cold; an elaborate ploy to trap one of the opposition and get his own people to kill him. With great care Leamas dangles himself as bait, and the plan appears to be working. But there are two problems: Leamas falls in love with a Communist Liz, who starts off as part of his cover and unwittingly betrays him, and Control has embedded plots within plots that Leamas isn't aware of and may not be able to extricate himself from.

And it’s here I come full circle to my earlier thoughts about trust and cheating and one of the messages I think Le Carre is proposing:
• a population should be able to trust its government’s statement of ideals and not wonder whether behind the scenes it's pursuing any means to achieve its aims;
• the secret service should be trusted to conform to its government’s stated aims and not cheat not only the population but its own agents; and
• agents should be able to trust the service it works for.

I guess we're still a work in progress.

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