Books: Painful return to the Circus

Written By: Martin Griffin
Published: November 21, 2017 Last modified: November 26, 2017

A Legacy Of Spies
by John le Carré
Viking £20

John le Carré’s compelling and poignant journey into the past of some of his major characters, and into the long-gone atmosphere of the Cold War in the 50s and early 60s, is not only for readers who know his novel of more than fifty years ago, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold; it can be read on its own merits as a new work. That said, it certainly helps to be familiar with le Carré’s first commercially and critically successful publication, which prompted the author to abandon his career in SIS (MI6) for a potentially more uncertain future as a professional writer. Presumably he has not regretted his choice – many of his personal essays in the recent collection The Pigeon Tunnel confirm unambiguously that he has not – but in many ways he became the outsider with an eye or a leg still inside the tent, as much as the insider who emerged to tell the tale. Le Carré’s great achievement as a novelist has been to give political choices emotional and ethical dimensions by placing them both inside a historical framework (the Cold War) and also within a British institution (the intelligence service) that has labored under the same tensions between social class, individual merit, and national identity that have disrupted and reshaped the UK repeatedly since 1945.

In A Legacy of Spies, which appears to take place at some point in the early to mid-2000s, although a final note in the novel suggests a feeling of despair over the Brexit vote, Peter Guillam is recalled from retirement on his Brittany farm to face some aggressive interviews in SIS’s massive headquarters building in Vauxhall. The questioning probes his recollections of an operation in which he was involved in the early days of his career.

Operation Windfall is the back story to the events described in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, in which (spoiler alert!) London attempts to protect a high-level source in the East German Ministry of State Security, or Stasi, by setting a trap that the source’s chief colleague, who suspects him, will inevitably fall into. The mission, although successful, leads to the deaths of the MI6 officer Alec Leamas and his lover, a young Englishwoman and CPGB member, Liz Gold, who are shot trying to cross the Berlin Wall in late 1961. Now, 40-plus years later, Leamas’s son and Gold’s daughter are demanding the British government come clean about how their respective parents died, and are seeking legal redress. As the SIS lawyers are wondering how to deal with this unexpected challenge, it has become obvious that the real truth is not even in the old files, and that the record is suspiciously incomplete about Windfall and what really happened during Leamas’s mission to fake a defection to East Germany. Sensing that Peter Guillam knows more than anyone other than his former chief and mentor, George Smiley, he is pushed and prodded, cajoled and threatened, to reveal all.

The confrontation with the past is not insignificant for Guillam, who wrestles with the choices of another era in which things seemed significant and urgent in ways that are almost impossible to communicate in the 21st century. In the central section of Legacy, the extraction of a female agent from East Berlin via Prague becomes a tale of absurd risk, courage, and inventiveness ending in betrayal, but Guillam’s meeting in the present day with the agent’s now middle-aged son, left behind in the GDR, collapses quickly into resentment and hatred.

In a novel that makes some unexpected moves, one such is the friend Guillam makes while wandering on his local beach in Brittany. As a man whose father was a collaborator with the Nazi occupation during the Second World War, and was executed after the liberation of France, Honoré seems to have also wrestled with ghosts from the past. Guillam’s father, a hero who died helping the Resistance, seems to be as haunting an absence as Honoré’s father was a humiliating presence.

Le Carré is not asserting, in this novel, that everything was done for the highest of motives during the Cold War. It was done for results. Indeed, his most famous character’s few statements at the end of the novel might give a faithful reader pause, as they do not quite align with the final passages of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, that bleak climax that nobody who has read the book or watched the movie will forget. In any case, A Legacy of Spies suggests that facing up to the past is never less than painful.