Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carré

I have a funny relation to this book. I have known the ending (don't worry, I shall not reveal it here) since I was nine years old, when I saw the copy one of my parents had checked out from the library lying on the table. I imagine there was a bit of a buzz about it at the time, which was shortly after it came out, or maybe just the title intrigued me. In any case, I did something that was totally uncharacteristic for me, then or since--I opened to the back and read the end. I have no idea why I did that. Suffice to say that the decades have come and gone and I have never had the slightest urge to discover what led up to that ending. Until now.

Recently, for reasons that are again unknown to me, I have suddenly been interested in spies. Yes, I've been working on a very bad spy novel and part of it is just research to make it marginally better, but the interest actually proceeded the writing so it's not just that. I think it's probably truer that the spy story came out of this earlier interest than the reverse.

Of course we're all reading le Carré again these days, what with the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy movie out recently, but though I fully expected that would be the le Carré I would pick up next, this was the one that I finally did gravitate toward. Reversing the usual readerly expectations, it wasn't that I wanted to know the end--I wanted to know the beginning.

It's best to just take the story on cold, so I won't ruin it for you with a lot of details. Basically, the Iron Curtain is up in full force and as the story opens our protagonist, Alec Leamas, comes back from Berlin after things have gone badly wrong there. Leamas has been a spy for a long time. He's got some pension issues, and he isn't really ready to take a desk job, though in spy terms he is already a little past it. How he decides to use his last good years in the game is what the novel is all about.

There has been so much spy fiction in the intervening years that perhaps the plot won't seem particularly novel to you. But le Carré is an assured and interesting writer to read in any case. The only other novel of his I have read so far is A Murder of Quality, which comes right before this one, and though it features George Smiley, le Carre's most famous character, it is really more of a detective novel. Smiley has a cameo appearance or two in this one as well, but the book is Leamas's.

Reading the Wikipedia article (I advise against this, until you've read the book, but I will keep spoilers out here), I learned that the book made at least part of its impact by revising our notions of what the world of espionage was all about. The amorality, and the mirror imaging of the opposing sides was exposed. It's interesting that though in one way, this is a lesson we learned long ago, in another, it seems to be one we are doomed to learn over and over.

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