A legacy of spies

A review of John le Carre’s recent spy thriller, A legacy of Spies.

Spying is a disease, an illness, a compulsion.

It is the art of lying, the skill of deceiving and the torment of second and third-guessing, which can be fun, like some bloody difficult crossword you work on for a life time… until you put it down and wonder why you bother – or in Peter Guillam’s case, why he did it for so long and for what purpose?

It’s not an unusual question in retirement.

This novel is his story revisited, as he is dragged out of retirement and forced to return to things done long ago…without a friend in sight.

Will the government, faced with embarrassing historical allegations, now throw him to the dogs? It might be easier for everyone.

So 2017 revisits the 1950’s, we move between the two, compare and contrast. Old behaviours and secrets are unearthed, different rules then, of course, different world; though with Salisbury as evidence, maybe not.

Le Carre creates a morally ambiguous universe where good and bad are not labels easily pinned on anyone’s lapel. Are we to swoon in admiration for these spies and their brave/dark deeds – or spit on their graves in self-righteous revulsion?

The Secret Service is called The Circus because the old offices used to be off Cambridge Circus.

You join the Circus, by special invitation, (in the good old days at least) and find yourself in a grimy pot of internal power struggles and dangerous continental tourism.

As in all work places, the most serious hate is saved for colleagues down the corridor.

Joint Operations compete with Covert Operations; Bill Haydon, still the undiscovered traitor, competes with George Smiley, the stumbling, shuffling, mind-like-sharp-mustard Christ-figure.

Bill Haydon’s a rat, we know that. But what’s behind George Smiley’s savage calculations, with their tragic and unintended outcomes?

For good is sometimes bad, and bad is sometimes good.

Agents struggle through both the shifting sands of personality-politics and very clear and terrifying danger; and, in theory, they do it for the good of the cause.

But what is the cause? ‘Land of hope and glory’ is not on many of their lips.

Le Carre’s terse prose is always a joy; as Carly Simon sang, ‘Nobody does it better’.

The dialogue is also a delight. One reviewer observes, ‘No writer has ever been better at turning the act of two people talking politely to each other across a desk into a blood sport.’

It’s really very savage…and so polite.

And it’s also a rattling good yarn.

I am a fan of le Carre. Two of my top five novels were written by him, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’ and ‘The Secret Pilgrim’.

And while this is Guillam’s story, not Smiley’s, the two men’s lives are woven together; and the punch line in The Legacy of Spies is discovering just why Smiley did what he did.

His reasons could hardly be more topical.

(But turn away now and cover your eyes if you don’t wish to know.)

It was for England, he says ‘But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission…it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless I was heartless for Europe.’

This is a whodunit and a whydunnit and like all his spy work, a meditation on identity.

It is a confession, an unattainable ideal, a noble scream in the dark…

...and everyone’s story.

‘A legacy of Spies’ is published by Penguin

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