If not a capstone to John le Carre’s remarkable career (like Philip Roth, le Carre keeps soldiering on), A LEGACY OF SPIES surely puts a finishing touch to his Soviet era spy vs. spy oeuvre.
His new book has the feel of an elegy for that earlier time: rather than triumphal — the West, after all, won the Cold War — Legacy is melancholic. It mourns not the glory days but the ugly choices, the betrayals on all fronts, that resulted in the sacrifice of colleagues.
And it asks the imponderable: were those sacrifices worth the price? Does patriotism trump personal loyalty and affection?
A Legacy opens sometime in the late 1990s or early 2000s, when Peter Guillam receives a summons to London. MI-6 is under pressure to account for the deaths of agent Alec Leamas and his lover Liz Gold. Both were shot in East Berlin at the base of the Berlin Wall trying to escape — and now, some 40 years later, the government is out for blood.
Under threat of double law suits for possible “wrongful deaths,” MI-6 wants to pin the blame on someone, and Guillam, former protege to master spy George Smiley, seems to be the only one left standing. So Peter, now white-haired and a bit deaf, drags himself back to headquarters to be grilled by much younger, smoother operators who have taken over the business of spycraft. What happened, they want to know, and who was responsible?
The deaths of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold serve as the climax to le Carre’s 1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and this latest book becomes a sort of prequel, filling in the backstory of the older one.
The problem with A Legacy lies in its structure: the story of Alec Leamas is told through Guillam’s flash backs, a technique that lacks narrative urgency. Further diluting the punch, the flashbacks are disrupted by a contrived present-day subplot and by the insertion of memos and letters — far too many. The result is choppy and sometimes confusing.
Still, while that complaint is not a minor one, le Carre’s writing remains potent, his prose like a finely polished gem — multi-faceted and reflecting hidden depths to both character and events. And after 54 years, le Carre manages to breath new life into Alec Leamas, endowing him once again with tragic dignity. There’s even a coda for George Smiley (now donned in yellow pants and a red sweater) as well as crusty Jim Prideaux.
Not surprisingly, it’s Smiley who has the last word in all that happened: “If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason.” But maybe not. That kind of thinking begs the question about ends justifying means.
That big question remains, and it is one that le Carre’s entire body of work has consistently posed — “How much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom … before we cease to feel either human or free?” “There’s the rub,” as Hamlet would say.
Do you need to have read those previous books: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold or any volume of the Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy trilogy? Well, it helps, if only to add clarity and richness to A Legacy of Spies. But, ultimately, no — you can enjoy this newest as a stand alone. Then again, why deprive yourself of the deep pleasures of le Carre’s finest works?
A former college English instructor, Molly developed LitLovers after teaching an online literature course several years ago. It was so much fun—even the students loved it—that she decided to take it public. If Molly’s not working on LitLovers, she’s sleeping.