In which our author in a way comes full circle, going back to the territory of his third novel and big breakthrough, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold
, as well revisiting some of his most famous characters in this and later novels, to wit, George Smiley and friends. Though Smiley himself, in present day, only makes a cameo appearance at the very end. He's the Luke Skywalker to this novel's The Force Awakens
, looked and searched for throughout the story by everyone, and none more so than a younger adlatus, who only tracks him down at the end of it. Mind you, "younger" in this case is relative, since the man in question is a senior citizen himself. He's also our narrator, and none other than Peter Guillam, possibly familiar to non-readers because Benedict Cumberbatch played him in the more recent cinematic version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
gets referenced a lot, and there are some other veterans from it making appearances, notably Jim Prideaux towards the end, but really, the Le Carré novel which this one serves as a remix, bookending, counterpart, whatever you want to call it as remains the earlier The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
. The one which which, in pop culture consensus, Le Carré reinvented the spy genre, presenting a counter vision to James Bond in the form of his shabby, worn down civil servants and the way the Western side of the Cold War was presented as performing morally ambigous to downright villainous acts. (Mind you, as Le Carré himself acknowledged, Graham Greene went there before him, but Le Carré still popularized the type.) The film version had Richard Burton as Alec Leamas, and Alec Leamas is the (dead) character most revisited in A Legacy of Spies
The premise: Peter Guilllam, enjoying retirement in France (the Bretagne to be precise, as he's half Breton and spent his early childhood there before being dumped into the horror of a British public school), gets summoned to London and given the unwelcome news that the children of Alec Leamas, Elizabeth Gold (and as it turns out the offspring of a third party who is new to the saga) are sueing the British government for what happened to their parents at the end of the earlier novel. (If you don't recall Leamas and Gold having kids in said book/film, don't worry; this is meant to be news to the reader, though Guillam knew about Alec Leamas' illegitimate son, if not about Gold's illegitimate-given-up-to-adoption daughter. Since the current secret service and government has no intention of being embarrassed, that means they need some individual to blame, and with Smiley mysteriously unable to find, this means Guillam as the sole survivor of "Operation Widfall", as it was called.
In practical terms, this means we're getting both flashbacks from Guillam and lots of excerpts from reports made at the time by various parties concerned. Le Carré avoids just rehashing old material (only viewed from the other perspective, as opposed to that of Alec Leamas) by not arriving at the actual events of The Spy...
until the last third. Before, we get the backstory, involving Leamas as head of Berlin station and Guillam as a courier. It's also Le Carré's opportunity for a good old suspense plot; the extraction of an asset. Meanwhile, in the present day, the various current day "Circus" members are gleefully skewered and satirized in their fake chummyness. (Footnote: one of them is called "Bunny", which is all you need to know. Is there ever a male character named Bunny who isn't an object of satire to his author?) Guillam, being a Le Carré spy (retired), lies of course to his investigators. Whether or not he also lies to himself regarding his motives at various points is up to the reader.
Nitpicks: for starters, I think Le Carré is making things easy for the readers as who to sympathize with, which didn't use to be the case. Having established the "children sue" premise, he goes out of his way to not
allow any narrative identification with them. Elizabeth Gold's daughter (and btw, the gender choice - a daughter for Liz Gold, a son for Alec Leamas - is another thing that strikes me as lazy) never makes it on screen, err, page, she's only referred to; Alex Leamas' son Christoph (half German, because of course he is) first shows up in the flashback as a sullen teenager, then in the present as a money-hungry thug, and by the time it's revealed that ( some spoilers ensue )
, it's too late for the readers. The son of the new character, the asset Leamas and Guillam first had to cultivate and then to extract, an East German secretary code named Tulip, gets a bit more development in that he's presented as likeable as a child and the way he's as an adult is clearly due to what happened to his mother and the choices our heroes made back in the day. But again, he gets just one scene. Meanwhile, Leamas, Smiley (in the flashbacks - when I said cameo appearance only, I meant present day George Smiley, the one in the 50s and 60s gets a lot of scenes) and Guilllam himself get a lot of pages to show their mental and emotional state about those hard choices.
Secondly, it's not until the last third when a sympathetic female character not romantically involved with any of our male regulars shows up; she's Tabitha, Guillam's thoroughly unimpressed lawyer, and she's great, but until then, Le Carré leaves us with types: ( Spoilers explain a bit )
. Since Le Carré in an article about the recent tv version of The Night Manager
freely admitted the best thing about it was the gender change that allowed Olivia Colman to play the handler character, I'm surprised that he didn't at least try to get out of his boys' club mentality for this novel. Make Christoph a Christine, for example, who still is damaged, has spent some time in prison and is on a revenge quest, and then even with the drawback mentioned above you immediately have a more interesting character. Granted: as a rule, you don't read Le Carré for his female characters (with the odd exception), you read him for the various male characters with myriad issues neurotically interacting with each other, and as always, he delivers a plenty.
Thirdly, for a novel which has a trial looming as a threat, it's a bit frustrating that ( spoilers happen )
Not a nitpick, just an observation: if you're only familiar with the recent movie version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
and not either the 70s tv version or the novel, you might be surprised and/or annoyed that Peter Guillam isn't gay in A Legacy of Spies
, but this was a movie-only thing, not mentioned or indicated in the original novel. Though while Guillam's het affairs are plot revelant, I admit he'd have been a more interesting character to me if Le Carré had decided to make him at least bi. Anyway, this novel isn't a case of a narrator truly telling his own story, it's more a case of the narrator telling other people's stories, in this case, Leamas', Smiley's and Tulip's.
Lastly: if The Spy Who Came In From The Cold
advanced the cause of shadiness in the spy genre, it for all its moral ambiguity - ( Spoilers for a spy novel and movie classic )
- it did so with the underlying assumption that it was still justified by the need to not let the Soviet Union win the Cold War. A Legacy of Spies
, written by a much older John Le Carré who is thoroughly disgusted by current day politics
, has its narrator wonder increasingly what any of it was for. And then George Smiley in his Old Luke Skywalker cameo answers that question with a passionate declaration that's very obviously also an authorial fourth wall breaking, of a writer in the age of Brexit and Trump. Smiley, on why he did the things he did: "For world peace, whatever that is? Yes, yes, of course. There will be no war, but in the struggle for peace no stone will be left standing, as our Russian friends used to say. (...) Or was it all in the great name of
capitalism? God forbid. Christendom? God forbid again. (...) So was it all for
England, then?" he resumed. "There was a time, of course there was. But
Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere? I'm a European, Peter. If I had a mission - if I ever was aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was to lead Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.
It's the last sentence that draws the line between nihilistic despair and critique allied to resolve and hope, despite it all.