"A Legacy of Spies"
By John Le Carré
264 pages, $28
Spying is an old game the Good Book tells us. “God said to Moses, Choose twelve men, one from each of the tribes of Israel, and send them to spy on the land of Canaan.”
John Le Carré’s latest spy novel, “A Legacy Of Spies,” is a book whose title is chosen carefully. John Banville, the wonderful Irish writer, makes a remark that I thought put Le Carré’s “Legacy” to us in perfect pitch.
Banville writes about this novel, that it recalls a “concentrated, dull, ashen sensation that one could almost feel between the lips, like a coating of radioactive dust … a connoisseur of that brand of terror, all his spies lived with it at every moment, waking and sleeping, it was the kind of grit that caused pain but produced no pearl.”
Except in this case of “Legacy,” Le Carré does put forth a pearl. Not many 84-year-olds (or anybody else) have the gift of writing so clearly and hiding the ball at the same time. It’s what one does who is learned in the ways of spy craft.
Here is how Le Carré begins “Legacy”:
“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 woman for whom he gave his life.”
That’s the outline of the novel in one careful cast of the pen. Not a word out of place. Seemingly truthful, but don’t bet on it. “As best as I am able to provide it …” is translated in the language of espionage and deceit with built-in modifiers attuned to one’s necessarily jaded perception of the world.
“Legacy’ is a throwback to “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” (1963), and the days where Peter Guillam was the assistant to the peerless George Smiley, played so cleverly by Alec Guinness in the 1979 TV film "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy."
The best secret agent that Guillam refers to was his friend Alec Leamas, killed years ago on the other side of the Berlin Wall with his lover, Elizabeth Gold.
At the beginning of the novel, Guillam, long retired, is summoned from his Brittany farm to the Secret Service’s snazzy headquarters on the Thames. He remembers that the old Circus headquarters that he had chosen to live in was different than this new “Spyland Beside the Thames.” Circus was dog-eared resplendent “with its worm-eaten staircases, chipped fire extinguishers, fish-eye mirrors and stinks of stale fag smoke, Nescafe and deodorant.”
He’s recalled on a matter in which the bosses at the new Spyland think Guillam was a player. He’s "gettable" because he "draws full pension and therefore torturable.” These are the words used by Le Carré to demonstrate Guillam’s vulnerability.
Those quizzing him, with quickly disappearing courtesy, are Bunny, a “fresh-faced, bespectacled, English public schoolboy of indefinable age in shirt and braces, and Laura, a menacing lawyer, feral, ready to pounce …” They affect civility, but have lawsuits on their mind. The suits are being put against the Service and they’re looking to incriminate Peter at his peril. They don’t take long to get to the point, with Bunny taking the lead: “Operation Windfall. How was it mounted, who drove it, where did it go so wrong, and what was your part in it?”
Peter does an old man routine at this point, contemptuous and pretending to be hard of hearing. “Windfall, Bunny, did you say?” This tactic gives Peter a brief time to mount old-school spy misdirection by thinking about what to do next. Internally he thinks, “Mount a deception, mislead the enemy, and protect a vital source.” (At the same time Peter is reflecting, “George Smiley and his master, Control. It was their refined cunning…their devious, scholarly intellects, not mine, that delivered the triumph and anguish that was Windfall.”)
Clearly, Peter needs a lawyer as his pretend amnesia doesn't seem to be working.
Why? The offspring of Leamas and Gold, Christopher, Alec’s illegitimate son; and Karen, Elizabeth’s daughter, are in court alleging that there was malfeasance – in the manner of misdirection, falsehood, and professional betrayal” - in the death of their parents as directed by the Secret Service. They are seeking "full disclosure, punitive damages and a public apology that will name names" to assuage their serious loss.
Here’s no surprise: Many of the documents that would be helpful to the Service have gone missing: “Filleted” is the word used. Clearly, the files from operation “Windfall” have been destroyed. All incriminating documents are gone, Peter’s questioners explain. How could this have happened? One would have done on purpose. Who? Is it “bespectacled, permanently worried” George Smiley? Is he alive, by the way?
Peter had come to think of Smiley as a father figure that he offered and later became. And as Smiley said to him in a reflective mood, “We don’t pay a lot, and careers tend to be interrupted. But we do feel it’s an important job, as long as one cares about the end, and not too much about the means.”
What a choice. But if you’re thinking of the glamour of spy craft, don’t get into it, especially if you have moral qualms. It’s a morass that will destroy you.
The novel is a robust piece of work that doesn’t want to shut down. We learn that Leamas was in a contest with Stasi Deputy Mundt, and was trying to aid people helpful to him in terms of information out of East Germany.
All of this detail may make younger readers admire the intrigue involved with the Cold War and its machinations. So much undercurrent to history that doesn’t pop up on Internet screens today.
Le Carré’s is at his cleverest in calling up and slightly revising old memories and building a new spy novel upon time's shifting sands. “Legacy” shows Le Carré at his consummate best.
Michael D. Langan reviews books for The Buffalo News.