Saturday, November 7, 2009

THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD/John Le Carre


If you want a history lesson in how things were during the beginning of the Cold War, read this book. Yes, it's fiction, and yes, it's about a spy, but it will give you a more accurate view of how things work in espionage. Why? Le Carre himself worked as a spy in British Intelligence for years before writing this novel.

This is the antithesis of the Bond novels (and films)—and I'm certainly not knocking those, because who doesn't need a little Bond in their lives, especially now that he's played by Daniel Craig? But Le Carre's novel gives a more realistic glimpse into how things really are for spies. It's mundane work, no more exciting than your average office job.

For Alec Leamas, it's even worse. When his last agent is murdered behind the Wall, his boss approaches him for one last mission—one that will (hopefully) take down East Berlin Intelligence.

All Alec has to do is play the part of an agent on the decline, one who drinks too much and sleeps too little, an agent on the outs. In other words, one who's ready to be turned. He does the part with so much aplomb it was difficult to remember he wasn't actually a lush. But then he meets a young woman, a librarian, and all hell breaks loose in his life.

Le Carre, I think, pokes a bit of fun at Western-style Communists, those thin, emo people I used to see early in my childhood (I forget where, maybe on TV). They dressed in black and handed out some Communist paper. But in TSWCIFTC they were harmless, people playing games and had no idea how real Communists operated. Le Carre obviously did, and he shows you in the last scenes of the novel.

I won't give you any spoilers if you haven't read it. Just know Le Carre doesn't pull any punches. I can't wait to read more of his work.

2 comments:

Froog said...

I read all the George Smiley books when I was a kid (and, in the 1980s, the BBC did superb adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley's People with Alec Guinness as the self-effacing spymaster).

I think a lot of people are a bit dismissive of Le Carré because they think it's just genre fiction; they underrate him, or they won't even try him, because he's just writing "thrillers".

But his stories are actually very richly textured, very dark. He's a wonderful - though extremely pessimistic - anatomist of human relationships, a really fantastic writer. He reminds me a lot of Graham Greene in the jadedness of his outlook, but I think he's possibly an even better writer than Greene. His books are really literary fiction that just happen to use the mechanics of the spy thriller and so on as a framework.

stacy said...

You know, it's funny you mention Graham Greene, because he provided a famous blurb on this novel: "The best spy story I have ever read."

I too dismissed Le Carre because, as a rule, I'm not a mystery/spy novel fan. But Le Carre's writing is so taut and satisfying (for me, anyway) it makes me wonder how I could have avoided him all these years. And it's not just the words, but the way he captures the moral ambiguity on both sides.

At any rate, total agreement, Froog.