Friday, September 8, 2017

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies

John Le Carre, A Legacy of Spies
Viking Press © 2017 David Cornwell
ISBN 978-0-7352-2511-4
Also available as an ebook.


What follows is a truthful account, as best as I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation, codenamed Windfall, that was mounted against the East German Intelligence Service (STASI) in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, and resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with, and of the innocent women for whom he gave his life.

The is the opening paragraph, and it draws us—it drew me—into a (fictional) past, but one that has always carried with it the aura of truth.  That past is the story told, in 1963, in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, of Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold.  Leamas, because he was chosen (and accepted) the task of acting as a traitor to England, of gaining the confidence of STASI, of casting guilt on a STASI officer, in pursuit of the goal of maintaining a double agent and the information flow that agent provides.  Gold, because she fell in love with Leamas (and he with her).

Now, decades later, in a very different world, all of that comes back to life, in the form of lawsuits filed by children of some of the people directly involved.  And a British government that would like to make it all go away…or at least not become public.

One of the few survivors who were participants in those events, Peter Guillam, who was in his early thirties then and is much older now (depending on when this book is actually set, somewhere between his late seventies and mid-to-late eighties), is required, under the terms of his retirement, to return to London, to be interrogated about those events.  In the course of his interrogation, he reads (or re-reads) the reports generated during the events of that distant past.  He recalls those events, sometimes in ways that differ from the reports.  And he answers questions. 

In what is, I think, a first for Le Carre, this book is written in the first person—Guillam narrates this part of the story, from his point of view, in the present.  So we are, to the extent he allows us, privy to his thoughts, to his efforts to corroborate or modify (or conceal) the history contained in those ancient reports.  And, of course, one issue is whether his memories of the past, and his understanding of who did what, and why, are shaped by his past and his distance from it now.  And throughout we have to deal with one figure—Control, whose name we never learn—who headed this branch of the British intelligence services (called, informally, the Circus) and another figure—George Smiley, then head of Covert Operations—whose decisions and actions shaped, to some degree, the events in that distant past.

Control is long dead; Smiley is long retired, but still, apparently, alive (making him easily into his nineties).  Of the others, well, at least mostly dead.

Guillam has to navigate his interrogation, which means remembering things he’d rather not, and dealing with loyalties (and betrayals) he’d also rather not.  And he has to remember, and deal with his own part.  And that is neither easy nor without its own evasions.

This is, let me say, a magnificent book.  While it may be useful to have read The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, you can get along nicely without.  It raises, and carefully does not resolve, a number of difficult moral issues.  Were the actions taken in the past were, then or now, justifiable?  Well, it depends.  Is the current investigation designed to get at “the truth,” or to make it easier to blame anything that looks difficult on those long dead or long out of power?  I think we’re given a number of hints there.  But remember, our narrator was involved, and his take on the current investigation may well be biased.  Is biased.  How can we be sure of, recall, describe, the motivations that led to people’s decisions and actions 50 years ago? 

How can we be sure, I think Le Carre is asking,of our own motives (or our efforts to deceive ourselves and others), of the morality or necessity or utility of our decisions, decisions that might maintain whatever tenuous peace now exists or might lead to needless deaths, and war—now?

1 comment:

  1. Some of you may wish to read this commentary (but, I would suggest, only after you read the book). I pretty much agree with the whole thing. (Bill Crider brought this to my attention.)
    http://littleprofessor.typepad.com/the_little_professor/2017/09/a-legacy-of-spies.html

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