A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré

Article published on September 7, 2017.

I have been eagerly anticipating this novel for months now and with that comes a certain trepidation, what if it doesn’t live up to expectations? I’m happy to say that any such fears were swiftly allayed because ‘A Legacy of Spies’ is a brilliant read and ranks among le Carré’s best novels. It is piercingly insightful, evocative and thrilling. A novel for the heart and the head, emotionally mature and intelligent. Peter Guillam, factotum to George Smiley and narrator of this story, draws the reader into a plot that entraps and captivates. ‘A Legacy of Spies’ proves that le Carré is the master at the height of his literary powers. The passion and energy that have always driven his novels are alive and kicking. However, I would urge any would be new reader of le Carré to take a look at ‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ before enjoying this novel. It will heighten the experience but it is not essential to enjoying this literary thriller.

Operation Windfall now haunts the Service, the nation has been blissfully unaware of the Cold War events played out on their behalf over half a century ago, but that is about to change. Guillam realised that his peaceful retirement in Brittany is threatened. With a sense of dread he answers the summons to come to London. When the questioning begins he is confident of riding out the storm until he realises that the Service may be out for his blood. The Legal Advisor to the Head of Service has information he thought long buried and the means to apply pressure that Guillam had not foreseen. Lines are drawn, Cold War warrior culture clashes with the new regime. Even the language used by his interrogators is modern – different. For the interviewers the Cold War is history not memory. Guillam would dearly love to speak to Smiley but where is he? He must walk a thin line between revealing the truth and hanging himself out to dry.

Peter Guillam is the fulcrum of the novel, his journey will test his nerve and drag up some long supressed emotions about the past and the dead – guilt, love, fear. To free himself he is going to need all the guile of his former profession – spy. In a couple of pages le Carré sketches Guillam’s background; mother a dissembler, father a war hero killed by the Gestapo, are these clues to his psyche? In ‘A Legacy of Spies’ he is no longer appended to Smiley but the heart and soul of the novel, bit part player turned lead actor. A fine development of le Carré’s creation. The reader, alerted by the machinations of the novel, is drawn into the game of piecing together information, of remembering the past, of reconstructing the story – becoming a spy. This reminds me of ‘A Perfect Spy’, the fictional life of the spy Magnus Pym but it has greater ambition. Like Pym, Guillam must face his past but he must also make choices; turn on Smiley and Control, sacrifice himself for the greater good, or run? The most critical examination of his own role in past events will be his own – is he proud, cynical or remorseful?

When ‘Call for the Dead’ was published by Gollancz in 1961 the dust jacket proclaimed, “Mr. le Carré is a gifted new crime novelist”, (John Bingham). The sub-genre of spy fiction was not even recognised and yet Smiley and Guillam appeared for the first time. Now 56 years on ‘A Legacy of Spies’ sees the latest return of George Smiley’s secret world. Of course, the realm of the spy is ever changing, it is a world of shifting sands, of redefining friend and foe, of never truly belonging or being able to trust those around you. Guillam knows this, he also knows that history is not the past but what society perceives it to be. It is subject to retrospection and hindsight – modern sensibilities can create a new ‘reality’ for the past. Yet there are questions to be answered about the morality of the times, some things we do see things more clearly with time. As long as we do not judge past events with hindsight alone. The Service has taken a pounding for rendition and it won’t let the actions of individuals or the Circus in the past add to the misery. The Service investigators, protecting the present organisation, evaluate the documentary evidence in an academic, revisionist way. Analysing the past is a cold blooded art – Karla and Leamas are abstracts. There is no empathy with the spies who may have been acting out of an honest, if misguided, sense of the greater good. No desire to right past wrongs. The Service is engaged in damage limitation, facing the threat of Parliamentary procedures and legal action. Sins must be punished even if they were not sins at the time. Guillam as much as his interrogators needs to understand the past – not just the what? but the why?

‘A Legacy of Spies’ is elegantly plotted. The clever premise of the novel is an investigation of the history of Circus Operation Windfall in the same way that real history becomes the subject of political, moral and academic study. This novel is not a recap it is a new story but it reveals more of the past from the period of ‘The Spy Who Came in from Cold’. Here there is more depth and certain events will be seen in a new light. Le Carré is working the reader’s memory of events and their meaning. The buildings, places and people are familiar but more than that, the reader is engaged, just like real history. ‘A Legacy of Spies’ is not nostalgic but is about memory and motives, ethics and pragmatism, human frailties and sacrifice. Ultimately, responsibility and values; who were during the Cold War? What have we become? Were we too busy fighting ‘evil’ to look at our own actions ethically and are we any better now?

This is very much a novel of now and the new story of the investigation has danger and tension, it is clever and entirely plausible. Le Carré writes with the same urgency and vitality he put into tackling the Iraq war and rendition in earlier novels. ‘A Legacy of Spies’ is deeply intelligent with a masterly control of material and a profound understanding of the change in attitudes and political mood over the decades. It even manages to be part love story and a tale of regret and remorse. In 1990 The Secret Pilgrim analysed several Circus operations – stories that span the decades with a linked purpose. ‘A Legacy of Spies ‘ is fundamentally more coherent because Guillam is not reminiscing – the past is alive in the now and so the story has real energy and power. Le Carré has set the standard for over 50 years, remaining topical. This may be his most ambitious novel examining the fictional history of the Service as if it were real history. Using it to frame a moral debate on values in society. How far are we accountable for our spies? Hats off to a new masterpiece.

Paul Burke 5/4


A Legacy of Spies by John le Carré
Penguin 9780241308547 hbk Sep 2017


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