John le Carré’s spy at fifty

In describing the enduring cultural impact of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – published fifty years ago and often nominated as the best spy novel ever written – a good place to start, strange though it may sound, is James Bond. John le Carré’s squalid yet subtle world of Cold War spies may appear antithetical to the glamorous fantasy of Bond. But it is clear from the last three Bond films, and especially the latest, Skyfall (2012), which of the two visions of espionage, Fleming’s or le Carré’s, is the more mature and compelling.

The middle-aged, double-crossed, burnt-out Bond seen in Skyfall could well be the Ian Fleming character edited by John le Carré. As portrayed on screen by Daniel Craig, Bond is the blockbuster counterpart to Alec Leamas, the seedy, world-weary yet still-capable hero of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.

Of course, the world of James Bond is not an accurate depiction of the real-life business of spying, and the fiction of le Carré does not propose to represent the way things actually happen in espionage. The super spy of Fleming’s lurid imagination is a materialist mirage born of postwar consumerism and the advent of the jet set. For le Carré, espionage is a metaphor for the grim modern bureaucratic world that most of us know.

False passports, high-tech gadgets, fancy cars, limitless funds, first-class global travel, and beautiful, kinky women are available on demand to Bond, but in le Carré’s secret service even the most mundane aspects of the job are complicated by the need to deceive others, not least those ostensibly working on your side. Bureaucracies are where personal ambition can easily override the national interest, and where private extraction may masquerade as public service. Few writers can match le Carré in capturing what we might call the evil of banality.

In le Carré’s world, people’s motivations are as complex and fraught as the tradecraft and deceptions employed in operations. The Spy, in essence, is a procedural mystery about an elaborately conceived mission to turn the enemy’s secret service upon itself. The conspiracy unfolds in the many clues discovered in seemingly innocuous conversations and apparently routine movements around Europe of people and money. Love among spies is a potential threat to their personal safety, as well as to national security.

One aspect of spying emphasised by le Carré is the intimacy in social terms of the relationship that members of one secret service have with opposing spies. When Leamas defects (or does he?) to East Germany, much of the interrogation to which he is subjected relates to small details about the people with whom he works, spies whose identities, personalities, and job descriptions apparently are as familiar to the enemy as to their own colleagues.

Few writers can match le Carré in capturing what we might call the evil of banality

 A similar kind of intimacy lies at the heart of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), arguably an even better book than The Spy. In Tinker Tailor, the roles have been reversed and it is the British who are seeking the traitor at the highest level in their own organisation rather than trying to protect a double agent on the other side of the Iron Curtain, as occurs in The Spy.

Both le Carré and Fleming famously had personal experience of working for the British secret services, which may lend credibility to their fiction, though le Carré has stated more than once that his spy novels were always intended to be plausible rather than authentic. The Spy was published under a pseudonym while le Carré was still employed as a spook, though the book’s huge sales and the author’s subsequent fame ensured that his cover would be blown. According to le Carré, the manuscript had been vetted by his employer. Presumably, he would not have been allowed to publish the book if it had revealed too much of what was really going on.

The Spy is the third in the sequence of eight novels that feature le Carré’s greatest character, and indeed one of modern fiction’s immortals, George Smiley. Though Smiley only appears fleetingly in The Spy, and appears to be on sabbatical when most of the events of the novel occur, it emerges at the end that he may have been pulling the strings all along.

It has been said that a cynic is a disappointed romantic, a phrase that neatly sums up the bleak yet urgent mood of le Carré’s fiction. The Cold War ended, but Western society grows ever more bureaucratic. The author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a fierce moralist in whose milieu lies reverberate endlessly.

Published in June 2013 no. 352
Simon Caterson

Simon Caterson

Simon Caterson is a Melbourne-based freelance writer and the author of Hoax Nation: Australian Fakes and Frauds from Plato to Norma Khouri (Arcade Publications, 2010).

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