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 Is that the legacy, rather as the erstwhile ‘Circus’ building has been superseded by Vauxhall Cross?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?

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Anomalous conventions

John le Carré:
A Murder of Quality
Penguin Books 2011 (1962)

‘Carne isn’t a school. It’s a sanatorium for intellectual lepers.’

George Smiley, ‘retired’ from the secret service, is asked to discreetly investigate a crime at a boarding school of ancient foundation in Dorset, a murder seemingly predicted by the victim herself in a letter to a Nonconformist Christian periodical.

What he finds at Carne School is an establishment “compressed into a mould of anomalous conventions,” one that — hidebound by a veneer of religiosity — is “blind, Pharisaical but real.” It is, furthermore, part of a larger Dorset community that is composed of inimical groupings: town and gown, North versus South, class snobbery, different educational opportunities, differing religious traditions, even hypocritical sexual mores.

Smiley (down from London) is the outsider who has not only to negotiate social traps but also delicately sidestep probing questions about himself if he is to assist the local police in identifying the killer.

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