Friday 23 March 2018

Cold War exploits come back to haunt in spy prequel

Thriller: A Legacy of Spies, John le Carré, Viking, hardback, 234 pages, €28

Authentic: John le Carré
Authentic: John le Carré
A Legacy of Spies

Myles McWeeney

More than 50 years ago, in 1963, while still working as an intelligence officer for MI6 in Germany, John le Carré published The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. It became an international bestseller and was later made into possibly one of the greatest spy films ever. Richard Burton starred as the doomed British spy Alec Leamas, with the then grimy cobbled streets around Dublin's Smithfield Market standing in for 1960s post-wall East Berlin and the famous Checkpoint Charlie.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was a book that completely redefined the espionage novel, emphasising the internal rivalry, meticulous planning and moral ambiguity of the trade over cartoon-like action spies like James Bond. It tells the story of British secret agent Alec Leamas who, with his unwitting girlfriend Liz Gold, pretends to defect to the East Germans hoping to compromise Hans-Dieter Mundt, the powerful head of the East German Secret Service. British spymaster George Smiley and his deputy Peter Guillam are supervising the operation, which ends disastrously (spoiler alert) when Leamas and Rose are killed by East German guards as they try to escape back to the West over the Berlin Wall.

In his new book, A Legacy of Spies, le Carré offers a sort of prequel to these tragic events. Peter Guillam, whose father was French, is long retired from the 'Circus' and living quietly on his farm in Brittany. He receives a letter summoning him to London, a request with which he has to comply under the terms of his none-too-generous pension from the government.

On his arrival at the 'Circus', he is met by Bunny and Tabitha, two smooth-as-silk young corporate lawyers who politely relieve him of his passport and inform him that an investigation into Leamas and Gold's deaths is to be conducted.

It appears there is a potential lawsuit in the offing instigated by Alec Leamas's son Christoph, a crude man who has lived by his wits all his adult life, and Elizabeth Gold's daughter Karen, who few knew existed. The pair have joined forces and are demanding compensation for the deaths of their respective parents.

The 'Circus' is extremely concerned that Britain's dark and dirty Cold War exploits, well hidden by clever and duplicitous people like George Smiley, may be exposed by today's litigious society that believes that financial compensation will right all wrongs.

It soon becomes clear to Guillam that his interrogators know a lot more about the events that have sparked the potential lawsuit than they should, and as he is forced to reveal the existence of long-hidden files he has flashbacks to another operation he was intimately involved in, code named Operation Windfall.

His memories of this, the cultivation and subsequent extraction from East Germany of Doris Gamp, or 'Tulip', the wife of a high-ranking Stasi agent who abused her grievously, induces in him feelings of "guilt, shame and apprehension" as he relives in flash-back their nerve-jangling escape from East Germany to England via Czechoslovakia.

This operation, too, ended in tragedy.

Throughout this possibly final chapter in George Smiley's long career, the man himself remains, as Bunny and Tabitha put it, "unavailable". It is only in the book's final pages that Guillam, thanks to his dual citizenship and carefully hidden French passport, leaves the 'Circus' and England and tracks the old spymaster down in a dusty old library in Freiburg in Germany. Incongruously dressed in a red sweater and gold-coloured corduroys, Smiley says, "if I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe", and that his motivation throughout was to steer Europe "towards a new age of reason."

In a few weeks' time, George Smiley's creator David John Moore Cornwell, better known by his pen name John le Carré, will turn 86. It is hard to think of authors who have written with such vigour and sparkle at such a great age - PG Wodehouse and Doris Lessing spring to mind - and readers of A Legacy of Spies will delight in the sly wit, the lucid and elegant prose and the knowing dissection of the duplicity and utter amorality of the Oxbridge-educated Whitehall mandarins who orchestrated Britain's spying in those uneasy Cold War years.

It may be fiction, but thanks to le Carré's background, it radiates authenticity.

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