Le Carre's Legacy

By Hoffman, Tod | Queen's Quarterly, Fall 2001 | Go to article overview

Le Carre's Legacy


Hoffman, Tod, Queen's Quarterly


For nearly forty years, John le Carre has been indelibly associated with how we view spies. Possessing the authenticity and credibility of one who has inhabited their world, he excised the robust, muscular glow of selfless heroism from behind the armour of their trade, exposing a gaunt cadaver of muddling self-protection beneath a foil of secrecy. Like a mysterious medieval guild, the craft of espionage devotes great effort to keeping outsiders at bay. That, as much as anything, has ensured widespread fascination. Tad Hoffman was fascinated enough to join the Canadian Security Intelligence Service. Here, he considers the spy novelist's legacy as chronicler of our political condition.

GOOD BOOKS reflect their times; great books define them. Great writers see through the conventional wisdom to show us a world we hadn't imagined for ourselves. They take events or ideas and twist them just so; tweak them in such a way that we are compelled to see otherwise.

To set the scene as it was in 1963, the Gold War was smoldering white hot, the world parted like the Red Sea into confronting blocs, each preparing menacingly to deluge the other. The Soviet government had demonstrated its ruthlessness in the face of dissent in Hungary in 1956. In 1957 Sputnik flaunted the apparent technological prowess of the USSR and raised the spectre of space-based dominance. Russian mastery of rocket science would again be displayed in 1961 when they succeeded in launching the first man into orbit.

In August 1961 they unilaterally closed the border between East and West Berlin, and proceeded to construct the Wall, its stark cinderblock topped with menacing razor wire and punctuated with watchtowers manned by armed soldiers. While it obstructed only a small part of the frontier where the Soviet bloc lined up against the American, it symbolized a new permanence in the intransigent bipolarity of the world. In the words of Timothy Garton Ash, "Germany was the divided centre of a divided Europe. Berlin, Germany's once and future capital, was the divided centre of the divided centre."

The following year, the Cuban Missile Crisis showed that the Soviets were prepared to encroach recklessly on what America took as its inviolable sphere of influence. Faced with Nikita Khrushchev's determination to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, John F. Kennedy reacted decisively, mounting a blockade around the island. Standing toe-to-toe, the slightest misstep promised to unleash forces of destruction the likes of which were hardly imaginable. Retreating, the Soviets didn't look vanquished so much as prepared for another day's fight. Krushchev's vow to bury the capitalist democracies still sent chills through the West. And 1963 was the year Kim Philby slipped out of Beirut into a frigid Moscow winter.

Reacting to the construction of the Berlin Wall, John le Carre has said, "I felt angrier than I had felt before about any political event, and the anger gave wing to my writing." At the time, he was a young officer of British intelligence posted to Germany. He had already published Call for the Dead (1961) and A Murder of Quality (1962), a pair of entertaining, well-crafted mystery thrillers that introduced George Smiley, who would evolve into his most enduring character.

His anger produced The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), which stands to this day as one of his best novels. It is a work of profound disillusion. Le Carre constructed a cynical, remorseless landscape that depicted the Cold War battle of the moment, but projected an attitude that wouldn't prevail for many years to come. Cold War fatigue was a long way off in 1963. Where the book is at its most radical is in the moral equivalency it draws between spies on both sides. Says Control as he sends Alec Leamas back out into the cold, "I would say that since the war, our methods -- ours and those of the opposition -- have become much the same. I mean you can't be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government's policy is benevolent, can you now? …

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