Friday, July 15, 2011

Books That Grab Me: John le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Welcome to the Cold War.  The old edition of this book I checked out of the library possessed a thin gray jacket with a looming Brandenburg Gate on the front cover, an intentionally ugly book that tells you all you need to know about the setting and the atmosphere.  Berlin, Iron Curtain, moral murk in high dudgeon.

The third book in what started as a series of spy stories as different from Ian Fleming's world as could be, John le Carre's The Spy Who Came In From The Cold explored professional failures and impossible choices.  Alec Leamas was the head British spy in Berlin at a time when the East German spy hunters began killing all of his recruited agents in East Germany.  He stood in a guard house on a bridge in the opening chapter hoping beyond hope that his final asset will make it across the bridge to safety.  It did not come to pass.  The German spy hunter Mundt got them all.  There's a professional failure inside Leamas, but also a deeper personal rage, one that his superiors see and decide to put to use.

Where James Bond goes to a casino to meet the opposition, le Carre's hero Leamas gets himself sent to prison to start his penetration into East Germany.  His goal: get recruited in as a resentful defector and lay down a story he worked out with the British secret service that will see the East German Mundt killed by his own people, a high wire plan that could fail at any moment but with a payout Leamas deems worth the risk to his own life.

"Set a man to trap himself, that's what Control said.  Go through the motions and see if they bite.  Then we worked it out -- backwards so to speak.  'Inductive,' Smiley called it.  If Mundt were an agent how would we have paid him, how would the files look, and so on..."  They need an impressive bait to kill the biggest monster in the land.

No one wrote like this in the 1960s.  Very few write like this now.  (I would that they would, perhaps then I wouldn't need to obsess over writing the books I'd like to read but which have never been written.)

As should be clear from early on, anything Leamas knew about his project was misdirection.  He disappeared deeper behind the Iron Curtain on a mission he did not know, to rescue an agent he didn't know existed.  A dozen veils of lies later, Leamas knows the truth, understands how's he been used.  The shocking thing is that when he unravels what happened, he's resigned, not angry.  If Ian Fleming sent Bond off on a suicide mission without telling him, Bond would have a different reaction.  For Leamas, he understood the complexity, the duplicity of his world and has no choice but to accept that even his side lies.  To each other, to their agents, to the men who risk their lives.

The Cold War is over.  We're into other theaters of stalemated wars, other missions for spies.  No one has written the old world or the new world better than this book.  As dated as it might first appear, I think the technology changed, but little else.  The people are as rich and flawed today as they were back then.  I wish we had as great an unraveller of the present mentality as the Cold War did in le Carre.

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