A legacy of spies by John Le Carre (Viking)


“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..

 THIS sequel to the Spy Who Came in from the Cold is probably best read when you have some time alone. To let the paranoia set in, as it were. We are in the now. There are skeletons in the Circus closet. A youthful and more abrasive team are in charge. New rules apply. Peter Guillam is summoned to explain. Explain covert events decades back.

There has been quite some heft behind this new Le Carre in our local Waterstones. Queues for a signing. Screening of the original film of the Spy movie starring a suitably pre-occupied Richard Burton. Invitations to a come-dressed-as-a-spy drinks party. The Smiley generation has been out in force.

Some of the rich descriptions of other books have been held back for the moment. We are in business-like mode. And the business is interrogation. The interrogator interrogated, held to account by the new generation. Given the backdrop of Stasi era operations, it is not without its disquieting irony.

The prose is spare, fast and tight, punctuation scaled down:

“We have an ouzo, then another. Straight, no ice, her idea. So she is a lush, is she on the make – me at my age, for Christ’s sake – or does she think alcohol is going to loosen the old fart’s tongue?”

It is worth (re-)- reading the Spy Who came in from the Cold first – or grab a look at the movie – to pick up all the Carre (or Smiley) subtleties, intrigues, bluffs, counter bluffs that swirl like so many storm clouds. The books are a pair or in fact a trilogy if you also include his first book Call for the Dead, which is also, albeit slightly less, relevant, written in 1960.

This is brave book that goes beyond the usual story telling and overlays the question of how we might react today to the derring-do adventures, the no-questions-asked, secret, so secret, Machiavellian machinations just so long as we get the result. Would we applaud and approve or be concerned about civil liberties. Looking back are we proud or appalled?

Smiley’s Marylebone labyrinth has been dismantled and moved south of the river – the monstrosity blown up in Skyfall in a parallel Jameds Bond fable.

It asks, which is what great novels do and lifts this out of the genre, accomplished as all the detail and story telling is. The narrative is broadened with testimony, with old records, with reports of the time to create a series of stepping stones, one realization follows another.

The characters bristle; Scottish Mollie who runs the safe house, the new kids Lara and Bunny are scary. The love (is that love?) interest Catherine speaks of an ideal of today not then. And then we have the jargon and diction. Smiley’s “velvet arguments, the crash telegram, exfiltration, scalphunters section…” He always chooses good names for his characters, so we have a new bureaucrat in Pepsi, a new lawyer in Tabitha.

Did all this really happen? We open with the statement that this is a “truthful account”. In the acknowledgements there is a thank you to one Jurgen Schammle for “finding the escape route”. John is now Sir John. You wonder how much all this hokus pokus is based on real events…real paranoia for sure, real subterfuge, real mistrust, real terror, real bumbling Britishness too…the theme being in the grander scale of things an examination of treason.

Le Carre will be 86 next month. He has carried this fiction with him for 57 years. He is as sharp as ever, the author of his generation.


About drewsmith28

Words, words, words...
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