A Legacy of Spies by John Le Carré

Reviewed by Basil Ransome Davies

However deeply the irony may have entered his soul, John le Carré has no reputation as a jester. An element of satire typifies his work, always. But mainly he’s an angry, scornful author, whose anger is played back at him by those who feel he has let the side down – near-treasonably unpatriotic, accomplice of lefties, dogmatically anti-American, etc. Now another devastating suspicion emerges, that of being a wind-up artist. The anonymous writer of Private Eye’s ‘Literary Review’ column reports being bathed with ‘the odd sensation of an author deliberately sending himself up…. It may well be that the old boy simply decided to have a bit of fun at his audience’s expense.’

Maybe, but simply that? On page 15 of A Legacy of Spies, Peter Guillam, a protégé of Smiley’s, has been summoned from a cosy retirement on his Breton farm to the Circus’s new HQ – ‘Spyland Beside the Thames’, as he labels it – missing the old ambience of Cambridge Circus, ‘with its worm-eaten wooden staircases, chipped fire extinguishers, fish-eye mirrors and the stinks of stale gag smoke, Nescafé and deodorant.’ Supplanting those established signifiers of le Carré’s downbeat, unhygienic ‘world’ is a sterile new environment where Peter is airily patronised and, seated on ‘a steel and leather chair’, helplessly records his sense of dislocation:

‘I thumb a grimy copy of Private Eye and wonder which of us has lost our sense of humour.’

There might be a lesson in that for the Eye, but even if its reviewer’s treatment of the novel includes an element of payback it’s still worth following up. A Legacy of Spies animates its plot – as is currently common for novels of crime and intrigue – by reference back to unresolved complications in the distant past, ‘historic’ cases: in this instance to the betrayals and grim fatalities of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), le Carré’s third novel, one that fixed his reputation and is always worth rereading. Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, murderously sacrificed to Cold War expedience, reappear as vengeful ghosts through the pursuit of justice by Leamas’s deviant son, Christoph. Half a century later Operation Windfall has brought the supreme embarrassment of potential legal problems – and (horror!) parliamentary intrusion into secret service affairs – for the Circus. As the author cruises through his own back catalogue via a proxy character-narrator, raiding a riotous secret archive of meetings and memoranda (all undated), that familiar le Carré odour of bureaucratic lies, duplicity and bad faith rises from the page.

A further phantom background figure is George Smiley, the doyen of Circus spymasters and trusted father-figure whom Guillam is unable to contact as, threatened, isolated and interrogated, he struggles to assert his innocence and preserve his pension rights. In Smiley’s absence the unfolding drama as the files are third-degreed has its moments of semi-comic melodrama – Hans-Dieter Mundt, the devilish Stasi double agent of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold caught by a rusty gin-trap after sneaking on to the Circus’s Camp 4 detention and torture facility for a quick assassination, Christoph stalking Guillam on the Embankment with a Walther P38 but in the event easily disarmed. It’s Christoph who articulates what many readers are likely to feel about le Carré’s picture of the espionage élite:

‘You’re all sick. All you spies. You’re not the cure, you’re the fucking disease. Jerk-off artists playing jerk-off games…. You live in the fucking dark because you can’t handle the fucking daylight.’

This is not exactly the author’s view, it’s a speech given to a desperate, unhinged character, but when an innocent Brazilian electrician is murdered on a tube train with no redress or a dodgy dossier is used to promote a war of aggression it can be a persuasive one. In a speech in 2004, launching the government’s Five-Year Strategy for Criminal Justice, Tony Blair (a man vainly concerned with his ‘legacy’) announced ‘we asked the police what powers they wanted and gave them to them’. That’s a poor strategy for a democratic society, and extending the same deferential scope to the secret police is no better. The Cold War, so evocatively restored to life in this novel through memory and record, already furnishes a classic instance of governments using international antagonisms to control their own populations (‘Project Fear’). Even George Smiley, popping up as an unflustered deus ex machina at the finale, confesses his doubts:

‘So was it all for England, then?… But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere?’

It’s a question many must be asking at present as so many vectors – ‘austerity’, terrorism, Brexit, the ferocious Tory assault on the welfare state – converge to create instability and anxiety. John le Carré offers no solutions. As a political novelist he issues warnings. As a writer of suspense and conspiracy fiction he builds engrossing narratives out of the paradox that a society to be open and free must protect its secrets, and try to steal the enemy’s, but the apparatus that guards them cannot itself be fully open to public scrutiny. In such a knotted situation the potential for abuse, never mind error, is near-limitless. I value le Carré over any other contemporary English novelist. He has always managed to entertain readers with such ominous material; A Legacy of Spies, serious as it is, adds a playful touch.

Before retirement Dr Basil Ransome-Davies taught American Literature & Film Studies at a number of institutions, finally at Edge Hill University. He is also a prizewinning poet & prose author & a recidivist crime fiction addict. He lives in Lancaster, walks for physical & mental health & visits France & Spain as often as possible.

John le Carré, A Legacy of Spies (Viking, 2017). 978-0241308547, 264 pp., hardback.

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