An unattainable ideal

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A Legacy of Spies
by John Le Carré,
Penguin Books 2018 (2017)

“I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission — if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.”
— George Smiley. Chapter 13

It is the second decade of the 21st century. Peter Guillam, retired spy, contemplates events in the mid-1990s, not long after the MI6 building was completed in 1994, and also earlier on in the Cold War, in the late fifties and early sixties. He himself is in his mid-eighties but his memories of twenty and sixty years before are as sharp as ever.

But old habits die hard. For someone who has been in the secret services for so long, he is careful to mix in disinformation as well as misinformation into his accounts to his interrogators, and to us. And the author too, also with a background in the secret services during the Cold War: we have to beware over which parts of his narrative are ‘real’ and which parts are unreliable.

The clue, after all, is in the title. Are we to imagine the novel is to do with a remnant of retired spies from an earlier period? Is that the legacy, rather as the erstwhile ‘Circus’ building has been superseded by Vauxhall Cross? Or is it the sins of yesteryear’s spies that have come back to bite them on the bottom? Is the ‘legacy’ in fact both of spies and of spying? Or is the author having his own little joke?

Secret Intelligence Services building, Vauxhall Cross (Laurie Nevay via Wikimedia Commons)

Because, in a way, A Legacy of Spies is a sequel to The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; and it is also a prequel, because it deals with events preceding the 1963 novel. Although I haven’t as yet read the title with which Le Carré first made his name much of the story can be gleaned from these pages, meaning that it is itself the legacy of the author’s previous spy novels.

When Peter Guillam is called from retirement in his Breton smallholding to attend to the bright young legal eagles at the SIS building and elsewhere it turns out that a younger generation is determined to discover the truth behind how their parents died in what appears to be a botched-up operation in East Berlin. What part did Peter play in a process codenamed Windfall, and to what extent is he and his former mentor George Smiley directly responsible for what happened to Alec Leamas, Elizabeth Gold, and the double agent known as Tulip? Will we come to know the truth, or even the eventual outcome of the legal representations that the offspring of the deceased are making?

Though there is some action, most of it is told through reports, or revealed through Peter’s interviews with the service’s lawyers or his solicitor. They are concerned with revealing, while he is determined to obfuscate, for reasons which only gradually become clearer but not entirely so. But the reader will soon realise that at root there is a conflict between personal and national interests, between sexual attraction and political persuasion, between pre-glasnost and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The covers of the UK hardback and paperback editions feature a tulip, fittingly as a key character has this as code name, and she does form a focus of much of the novel. But I wonder if a more fitting symbol is the hearing aid the reluctant interviewee Peter Guillam wears: not only is he able to use it as a prop to give him time to consider an answer, but a general fear of covert listening devices runs through the various situations the plot takes us — hence the nondescript hotels, the safe houses, the out of the way places where clandestine meetings are held.

And what was it all for? For that dwindling number of individuals who lived through the Second World War and the Cold War which too soon followed it it was always about peace in Europe, the age of reason that would emerge from the irrational emnities of conflict. If some have seen Smiley’s declaration of European identity as merely Le Carré’s dismay over Brexit they have it wrong: espionage arises from values which are not shared, and if the peace that was brokered politically in Europe over a long half century is put at risk by the kind of jingoism that led to war in the first place, it’s no wonder that those with long memories worry that peace is an unattainable ideal.

And all espionage is fraught with moral ambiguities.

This novel held my attention pretty much throughout. Only occasionally did I stumble over Peter’s prolix prose in the reports he wrote, surely too literary for such prosaic factual accounts? The author also teases with timelines — for example, reading about cheap mobile phones one might be forgiven for thinking Guillam’s MI6 interviews took place in the mid 2010s, but a quick check reminds me that Motorola, Nokia and Ericsson were all producing models in the mid 1990s, albeit in the days before smartphones. Those familiar with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold may be at an advantage here but certainly A Legacy of Spies works as a standalone as well as a bookend to the Smiley series.

16 thoughts on “An unattainable ideal

    1. Emily but not me was a fan of Le Carré way, way back (and watched the TV series but not the films). I suppose the Cold War was then too present for me to want to immerse myself in it — but now that I’ve read an early Le Carré (A Murder of Quality: https://wp.me/p2oNj1-3PE) and his latest it’s time to start filling in the gaps! I’ll be browsing her shelves…

      And I suppose if someone is going to choose a French surname as their nom de plume it’s perhaps unsurprising to know they’re a Europhile. 😊

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    1. I think Spy will have to be my next Le Carré after this, if only to see where it all started! I’d be curious — or, rather, keen — to see what you thought of this when you get round to it, Annabel.

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  1. I was going to read his latest book, Agent Running in the Field (published last year in Le Carre’s 88th year) but now I think I need to read this first. One of my favourites of his books is A Perfect Spy based on his own life and relationship with his father.

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    1. Yes, I’d read that A Perfect Spy was published because he was not entirely happy with the biography which had been published previously. If you do read this penultimate novel I hope you’ll review it too. 🙂

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        1. I caught a bit of the film version on television, but because I came in at a late stage it make little or no sense. Still, Gary Oldman is very good in any role he takes on.

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    1. I’ve only read Ambler’s The Mask of Dimitrios but I was taken by the period atmosphere, almost as if film noir could cross media boundaries, so feel I ought to seek out more of his work. Mind you, it helps that I grew up in the very grey world of the fifties and early sixties…

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  2. “espionage arises from values which are not shared….” what a powerful observation, Friend. I loved the Smiley stories, including THE SPY WHO CAME IN FROM THE COLD, and now I must must MUST read this before 2020 steals away. Your comment about the hearing aid strikes a deep truth, and a personal one with me: my grandfather wore one much of his life, and I remember how often he would turn off the world when it grew too loud for him…and the eventual struggle when the technology could no longer connect him to the world at all.

    Now when time allows I must hunt down your other reviews of all those Dark Materials…gah, this crazy schedule of mine! xxxxx

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    1. Yes, it’s a truism (though one I doubt I originated!) that when ‘friendly’ allies spy on each other they have values which aren’t shared. And also internally too: I’ve been re-watching Cuarón’s 2006 film Children of Men and am struck on how much closer the Disunited Kingdom is now to events portrayed then: its ambiguous attitude to a pandemic (infertility then), its extreme xenophobic stance to foreigners (disgustingly whipped up today by tabloids and demagogues), an extreme rightwing populist government, and the universal suspicion that rears its head whenever a stranger hoves into view. It’s depressing.

      Increasing deafness can be really alienating; I’m sorry your grandfather was subjected to this as his life proceeded.

      I’ve got at least one follow up post of The Amber Spyglass to complete, then it’s a review of The Secret Commonwealth which I need to get out there. I’m looking forward to the publication of Serpentine in a few weeks…

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