17 October 2014
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is, on the surface, a simple enough spy story. Its set pieces are now so familiar that they're archetypal: an undercover agent, fake passports, defectors, double agents, checkpoints, counter-intelligence and deception. It's a compact and easy read and won't take long. But by the halfway point it has become something more sophisticated, and by the end it will have left a deep impression on you. More is going on here than standard espionage thrills; this book is not meant to thrill or entertain.
le Carré explains in the afterword that he wrote it out of a sense of urgency and moral duty after seeing the Berlin Wall in person and realising what so many well-intentioned ideologies and political theories had finally amounted to. I was reminded of Orwell's most famous political novels, which were similarly compact and direct, angry, made up of essentials and intended to forcefully draw attention to uncomfortable truths about the consequences of political ideologies. Like Orwell, and unlike his peers in the spy genre, le Carré presents an outraged criticism rather than a daring adventure, and victims rather than heroes.
His purpose was to criticize the nature of espionage - the way in which it is conducted, how far it departs from the principles of its societies, and the coldly pragmatic and unethical decisions that are its logical endpoint. The novel is dark and bleak with a steadily growing sense of horror. It's unflinching in its study of the mindsets on both sides of the Cold War, making no attempts to charicature or vilify any of the involved parties: the bizarre mixtures of ideology and pragmatism, of inhumane practices and gentlemanly sentiments, of sociopathic manipulation and lingering honour that existed on both sides of the conflict are studied in knowing detail.
le Carré creates the bare minimum of characters needed to tell his story and then richly explores every nuance and contradiction of their natures. They are given a rare depth and realism through generous dialogue and brilliantly astute characterization, and feel wholly human. Their vain struggles to comprehend and outwit systems whose explicit purpose was to never be comprehended or outwitted by anybody, not even their own agents, is disheartening; their anguish and frustration as they attempt to do the right thing in situations where the only currency is human suffering and the only choices left betrayals, even more so.
le Carré gives us no enemy, no bad guy, to draw a moral compass from; as in real life, and especially in the Cold War, there are only people on both sides faithfully following their principles and methods, doing what it seems must be done, and realising too late that the results are terrible. The awful situations created and choices made are presented as a problem with no solution, a Pyrrhic battle in which human lives are sacrificed and traded and nothing of proportionate value is recovered by anyone - as in Orwell's 1984, human suffering is demanded by calculating systems of control, and nobody is empowered to prevent it.
On account of all that, it should be an alienating read. The greatest accomplishment here, though, the saving grace, is how sympathetically le Carré humanizes the protagonist, Alec Lemas, effortlessly making us identify with a man other writers would mystify or glorify as a tough and hardened professional. He recognises that every tough and hardened operative is, at base, just a normal person whose training or particular psychological quirks suit him well to the work of espionage; that, when the work is done and the consequences dealt out, it's a human being who must cope with them.
Several reviewers contrast him with Ian Fleming's Bond, and rightly so; where James Bond is a steeled, wry hero-figure who thrives on the challenges and triumphs of his experiences, Alec Lemas is a terribly relatable ordinary man with finite endurance, gradually worn down by years of traumatic experiences and unsavoury work, pushed to the edge of his emotional endurance by the ethical contradictions of his duties. Through him, we gradually see how hopeless and expendable individuals are in the process of espionage, how amoral and inhuman a process it is. There's a dark, preoccupying unresolved question at the heart of the story that will have you rereading it, struggling, as Lemas does, to find an answer: how do intelligent, earnest, well-intentioned men end up doing such brutal things?