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‘The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’ by John le Carré

Frailties: The poster of the 1965 cinematic adaptation starring Richard Burton as Leamas.   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

From the day his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, was published in 1963, John le Carré realised that he was to be branded “the spy turned writer, rather than a writer who, like scores of his kind, had done a stint in the secret world, and written about it.” Le Carré, a mask for David Cornwell, had worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, in the 1960s.

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He was in service when his first three novels came out: his employers cleared the publication because they concluded that the books were “sheer fiction”, uninformed by personal experience.

When le Carré became too famous as a writer, he quit his job with the British intelligence and concentrated on writing, turning out over 20 ‘genre’ novels that would gather praise from peers like Graham Greene and Philip Roth. When he passed away on December 12, 2020, the world lost one of the most important chroniclers of the post-war era who had taken into his sweep the end of empire, the Cold War, the fall of the Soviet Union, American hegemony, but most of all the frailty of the human condition.

Air of conspiracy

Betrayal, loss, abandonment (of ideology and country) are common themes in le Carré’s novels, which use the spy trope to tell the story of relationships and broken people. In The Spy, a 50-year-old British agent, Alec Leamas, is given up to save an ex-Nazi turned communist in the German Democratic Republic (as East Germany was known as) who is a mole for the U.K. intelligence.

It is the 1960s: Leamas had been spying in the backdrop of the Berlin Wall for his British masters. Now ‘Control’ (the name Leamas gives to the head of the Secret Service) wants to bring him in but he is handed out one last assignment, and thereby hangs a tale, built layer by chilling layer.

Leamas’ carefully chosen girlfriend, Liz Gold, gets tragically caught in it. The day Leamas heads for East Germany, it’s cold, damp and grey, with the mist pricking his skin.

The airport reminds Leamas of the war (World War II — he is a veteran): “machines, half hidden in the fog, waiting patiently for their masters;…Everywhere that air of conspiracy which generates among people who have been up since dawn — of superiority almost, derived from the common experience of having seen the night disappear and the morning come.”

Such keenly-observed descriptions abound, of places and people.

Devilish brew

When realisation dawns upon Leamas in the end that things will not turn out the way he had anticipated, he feels betrayed. But too tired to think of his own fate, he is desperate for Liz to escape the mess. William Boyd writes in the introduction to the Penguin Modern Classics edition that all Leamas wants is that Liz should get over the Wall, to Berlin and safety. But his masters, and not the least, George Smiley — “mastermind of the devilish brew of bluff and counter bluff” and hero of future le Carré novels (the Karla trilogy) — have other plans.

They want Leamus to be free, but not Liz, who knows too much. Boyd says that in refusing to come in from the cold as a spy, Leamas comes in from the cold as a person: “In his deliberate orchestration of his death he shows that he is a human being.”

In John le Carré: The Biography, Adam Sisman tries to pin down the enigmatic writer. Quoting le Carré, who once wrote, “people who have had very unhappy childhoods are pretty good at inventing themselves,” Sisman says that this applies to le Carré himself.

Brought up by a conman father and the memory of a mother who left when he was five, he learnt to invent stories as a boy to escape reality. Sisman points that as a man he put these skills to professional use, first as a spy and then as a writer: “I’m a liar, born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practised in it as a novelist.” Le Carré reinvented the spy novel, and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is one of its finest manifestations.

The writer looks back at one classic every month.

sudipta.datta@thehindu.co.in

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