Spy Who Came in From the Zeitgeist

John LeCarre’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a terrific book (as mentioned last week), but I don’t know that it ages well.
First, some background for anyone young enough to need it: Following WW II, Germany divided up into Communist-controlled East Germany and democratic West Germany, with Berlin split between them. In the early sixties, East Germany found a solution to stop residents evacuating to West Berlin: It built a wall right across the city, manned by guards.
In the novel, (Spoilers Ahead) Alec Leamas is MI5’s Berlin head of operations. After his East German adversary Mundt assassinates yet another British mole, Leamas returns home in disgrace and slides into alcoholism, unemployment and burn-out. His only connection to life is Liz, a Communist Party member working at a library. Desperate for money, Leamas contacts an East German agent and offers to sell his knowledge for a price.
It’s alll a lie. Leamas still works for MI5: His story subtly fingers Mundt, a loathsome ex-Nazi, as a British agent, while MI5 plants evidence to confirm it. But when word of Leamas’ supposed defection leaks out, his East German handler kidnaps him to East Germany. He becomes star witness at Mudnt’s trial, but Mundt has a counter-move. It turns out MI5 has been helping the impoverished Liz, making it seem it comes from Leamas. Mundt brings Liz to Berlin in a cultural exchange program, then puts her on the stand: Her evidence implies Leamas has the money to support her, which shreds his cover story. Mundt clears his name and eliminates the underling who suspected him.
Mundt then sets Leamas and Liz free to escape over the Wall: He is the informant, and the whole operation used Liz and Leamas as pawns to place him above suspicion. The supposed safe point on the wall turns out not be so safe: The guards shoot Liz and Leamas, at the top of the wall, drops back to East Berlin to die rather than keep playing the game.
The book is way better than LeCarré’s first two novels, but I wonder how well it would work for someone the age of, say, my 18-year-old niece, someone for whom the Cold War is ancient history? I was alive during the era, and I still found the Berlin setting and the security and paranoid counter-spying almost as alien as the world of Avatar. Spying in a hot war is one thing, but I’m honestly not sure anyone who wasn’t there will make sense of the Cold War’s intrigues.
When I began the book, I also thought LeCarre’s cynicism about the petty, backbiting, status-hungry world of intelligence would date poorly too. While it was shocking at the time to suggest spies sometimes acted unethically, these days most spy fiction acknowledges the existence of ambitious schemers, paper-pushing bureaucrats and immoral acts.
There, however, I was wrong. Most spy stories I catch (and I don’t catch a lot, so take that into account) assume that while some guys in the agency may be bad, they’re just blemishes on a heroic face, so to speak. In LeCarre’s world, they are the face. The cold-blooded willingness to sacrifice Liz (or an intentional plan to have her killed, as this review suggests) isn’t some rogue operation, it’s sanctioned from the top. In LeCarre’s world, the work they do is vital, but the people who do it are immoral, often self-serving, bastards. And that’s their good points.
If anyone tried portraying the CIA like that today, I think the outrage would actually be worse.

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10 responses to “Spy Who Came in From the Zeitgeist

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