Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Short Take: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré

This review was originally published on Pol Culture.

One of the most impressive aspects of John le Carré’s 1963 espionage novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is that it has not become dated. A 21st-century reader does not require a fondness for ‘60s conventions to find this Cold War thriller extremely effective. Apart from the particulars of the historical setting, those trappings aren’t particularly conspicuous. The novel’s protagonist, Alec Leamas, is a veteran field officer in the British intelligence service. When the story begins, he’s on his way out: as head of the service’s Berlin operation, he’s seen all his Soviet-bloc contacts, one by one, become exposed and killed. He returns to civilian life, but he cannot seem to make a go of it. Alcohol abuse, financial problems, an inability to hold down a job--they all contribute to him scraping bottom in short order. His deterioration makes him a prime target for being co-opted by Soviet-bloc operatives wanting detailed information about Britain’s espionage operations. What follows is an elaborate effort to manipulate the upper echelons of the communist East German intelligence corps, and Leamas discovers he is more of a pawn than he ever could have imagined. John le Carré is an expert plotter; the narrative continually--and plausibly--pulls the rug out from under the reader’s expectations. But his capacities as a storyteller go far beyond his skill at manipulating the story. Leamas is a sharply realized character: a bitter, misanthropic burn-out case who nonetheless retains his dedication to the mission his country has set for him. All the while, he understands he cannot trust his British superiors to do what’s right by his well-being. He also discovers that, at times, the German agents can. In the world of espionage, friend and enemy are roles to be played, depending on the circumstances. The strength of Leamas’ characterization is part of a greater resonance: ethics, idealism, and even decency have no part in the pursuit of organizational goals. The one is always expendable to the greater agenda, and the ends always justify the means. The novel’s recognition of the dark side of the espionage world contributed to its success in the 1960s. With its finely rendered shades of gray, le Carré’s novel was seen as a gritty antidote to the upbeat, fanciful superheroics of the James Bond franchise. Read today, in a world where the corporate ethos dominates, its uncompromising view of organizational amorality and the cost to participating individuals make it as powerful as ever.

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