Impossibly Complex Younger Women and Cold-War Wreckage
When you’re a spy, you literally “are the job.” But what happens when the job ends and the ravens come home to roost? In John Le Carré’s Legacy Of Spies, Christoph is the son of Alec Leamas, the literal “spy who came in from the cold.” Thirty years after the events of Operation Windall, a classic “haul-them-over-the-Berlin-Wall”-type caper, Christoph seizes the opportunity to sue his father’s old Service for wrongful death. Christoph is a plainly odious character, a sort of elder Millennial brat with an overbearing sense of entitlement and weird hygiene. In short, an asshole. But one symbolic of a generation outraged by the espionage crimes of their forbears, with no patience for their justifications.
Enter Peter Guillam, pulled out of retirement on his farm in Normandy to fill in the blanks for a newly-retooled Secret Service. Gone are the old days of linoleum corridors, tea ladies and clubby misogyny. Peter must contend with female department heads, smarmy lawyers and the annoyances of Parliamentary oversight. If Christophe’s attorneys can convince the government his case has merit, Windfall will be declassified and the entire sordid baggage of Guillam’s past spilled out for all to see–double-dealing, sacrifice killings, and all. And like the English say: That’s just not cricket.
Guillam is like all Le Carré protagonists these days: Involved with an impossibly complex younger woman, who lives with him on the farm. This is entirely logical. Because protagonists who are contemporaries of the great spy novelist fall into the Rod Stewart demographic: They no longer make their living shooting pool nor date women older than themselves. This leaves only troubled younger women. They end up with musicians, like Emma in Our Game or the PLO-obsessed Charlie of the recently-resurrected The Little Drummer Girl. LeCarré’s spies purposefully choose difficult careers and difficult women, inhabiting a domestic space every bit as labyrinthine as their professional lives.
In keeping with the framework of flashback/flash-forward that LeCarré uses to link past and present, Guillam is taken to an old safe house once overseen by George Smiley but kept in pristine Cold War condition by careful archivists. The place serves as a sort of temporal zoo exhibit in which Guillam can revisit the details of his past–a device LeCarré employs to good effect. Long-time readers will be pleased to learn that he uses Legacy of Spies to connect The Spy Who Came in from the Cold to his signature “Karla” trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People).This provides a credible landscape in which to pose all sorts of questions, some of which are answered (although the secret to ending up with gorgeous younger women, however complex, is not among them).
The shifting moral landscape of western culture might seem a weighty topic for an espionage novel, but that’s exactly what LeCarré seeks to pull off here. The recounting of Leamas’ flight across the winter-swept fields of East Germany, while perhaps heavy-handed in the symbolism department, is an evocative and magisterial piece of writing. And besides, who cares about symbolism anyway? The less said about percussion instruments, the better.
Legacy of Spies shows a master at the top of his game, re-evaluating both his own legacy and that of his legendary characters. As an emeritus member of the boring, dreary world of Real Life Espionage®, LeCarré can thread a fictional story with just enough truth to feel credible. The feeling of Legacy of Spies is one of foreboding, a sense that the sacrifices of the past were not only meaningless but will be ultimately unwelcome. Elder Millennial brats don’t appreciate our efforts to win the Cold War. Anyway, as LeCarré himself notes elsewhere, perhaps we didn’t win. Perhaps the other side just lost.
(Viking, September 17, 2017)