In Legacy of Spies, the deeds of the past are weighed against the morality of the present.
There has always been an undercurrent of sadness in John le Carre’s novels. The Smiley trilogy, perhaps the apogee of the great man’s oeuvre, is a prime example – it is a saga of betrayal, personal and professional, of disloyalty and infidelity, of a world without any human connections, occupied by men and a few women with a perverse morality, all well camouflaged by patriotism and allegiance to a higher cause.
When the Cold War ended, le Carre watchers said the author would now run out of steam – after all, it was the tension between the West and the communist world that formed the core of his novel, his entire fictional universe. While he kept writing, not all of his books were of the same quality – new villains had to be found and the experiments did not always work. The Tailor of Panama had wit, but a restricted arena, and while The Constant Gardener soared in its depiction of moral choices, the pharma industry as a shadowy force had limited traction. To this reviewer, the Night Manager and A Most Wanted Man remain the most satisfying of his later works.
In his latest outing, the note of melancholy is heightened by the plot – if it can be called that – which is founded on memory. This memory is not nostalgia or indeed memoirs that a spy may write; here both the protagonist and those trying to pry out secrets of the past from him both belong to the same side and yet their own versions of it vastly differ. This is about remembering and forgetting, but while one was there, the others are basing their own assessment on contemporary practices and ideologies. Naturally, there is no middle ground and it is quite clear that the older practitioner is out of date with modern times.
Peter Guillam, once the boss of the Lamplighters of the Circus and involved in many a crucial if dirty job during the good old days of the Cold War, is summoned to his old office in London from his retirement farm in France. The Circus has physically changed – “And where has all the noise gone? The silence gets worse the longer I listen. No jolly chatter of typewriters, no unanswered telephones ringing off the hook, no clapped-out file trolley rattling its way like a milkman’s float over the bare-board corridors, no furious male roar of stop that bloody whistling!”
It gets worse, when he meets Bunny and Laura, the two in-house officers mandated with asking him to think back on a botched operation; they are all smoothness and exceedingly clever and lay it out right away: “So what we have, Peter, bluntly, is a bit of a serious legal porridge to sort out,” Bunny resumes at a slower, louder pace, having spotted my new hearing aids peeking out of my white locks. “Not a crisis yet, but active and I’m afraid rather volatile. And we very much need your help.”
The operation, called Windfall was beyond the Iron Curtain and involved his friend and colleague Alec Leamas (from The Spy Who Came in From the Cold) and his East German girlfriend Elizabeth Gold, who both died at the end of it all. Their children, lost until now, have surfaced and they want answers and compensation from the British secret service. Else they will take the matter public and that, of course, won’t do.
Bunny and Laura, have been through the files to put together a comprehensive picture of operation Windfall, but the files have been either ‘filleted’ or simply destroyed. The two people they think would know the most about it are Guillam and his boss George Smiley, so they go after Peter.
Thus begins an attempt to slowly reconstruct the entire saga of prising an asset out of East Germany, with Bunny and Laura pushing and Guillam dissembling, sometimes deliberately, at other times because he has genuinely forgotten but mostly intuitively. Playing with and in the shadows is second nature to him. He knows he is up against something big and powerful, but he is not about to give it all away just like that.
As he reads old files and notations and under prompting, answers their queries, Guillam muses on how, in times past, there was danger at every corner, friends and colleagues could turn out to be traitors and the Cold War provided moral clarity about the fight between good and evil.
Except that this fight had consequences, especially for good, simple folk, who wanted to do the right thing but were caught right in the middle. Their stories were doomed to end badly – the professionals saw it as collateral damage and suppressed their own emotions, even if they were hurt – “A professional intelligence officer is no more immune to human feelings than the rest of mankind”.
And so it goes, through the book, which recalls not just operations but also familiar people, ranging from Leamas, the traitor Bill Hayden and of course, the master spy himself, Smiley.
The diehard le Carre fan will love the references and enjoy the tone, even if there are moments when the story seems to flag. At 84, the great man is in top form and this one is far superior to many other outings in the post Smiley-trilogy phase; perhaps he was feeling the need to add this coda to the Circus saga.
At the same time, unlike a few of his last books, which had clearly identifiable villains – big pharma and arms dealers among others – A Legacy of Spies remains far less political. The ‘enemy’ as it were, is a changing Britain, a revamped secret service and a bunch of shiny bureaucrats who cannot and will not understand the compulsions of the days when Guillam and his colleagues were active in the field. Guillam still has a trick or two up his sleeve, but it is clear that he and his ilk are dinosaurs and must be judged by today’s moral standards: “The historic blame game that is the current rage. Our new national sport. Today’s blameless generation versus your guilty one. Who will atone for our fathers’ sons, even if they weren’t sins at the time?” As the past closes in on him, Guillam realises, as many of his generation surely must, that the present is a different country and things are done differently here.