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A Legacy of Spies: John le Carré’s Smiley still has much to teach us

In the early decades of his novel-writing career, John le Carré’s most iconic character was the ageing spymaster George Smiley, an intelligence officer associated a fictionalised version of MI6 known as “the Circus”. Appearing in such acclaimed novels as The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), Smiley came to epitomise a more cerebral model of the fictional spy.

John le Carré made a rare public appearance at London’s Royal Festival Hall on 7 September 2017, looking back over his career and discussing his new novel.

At the conclusion of the Cold War, however, le Carré had decisively retired this character. In his final appearance in The Secret Pilgrim (1990), Smiley concluded a series of lectures to new recruits by declaring: “Time you rang down the curtain on yesterday’s cold warrior … The new time needs new people. The worst thing you can do is imitate us.”

Subsequently Le Carré’s post-Cold War work has largely consisted of standalone books with no connection to the world of Smiley or the Circus. New novels looked outwards from this institutional culture towards a range of wider geopolitical concerns. These have included, for instance, the international arms trade in The Night Manager, (1993) and the conduct of the “war on terror” in Absolute Friends (2003).

As a result, the announcement that le Carré’s 25th novel, A Legacy of Spies (2017), would constitute his first return to Smiley’s world in 27 years seemed a curious reversal. Did Smiley, against his own protestations, have a valuable lesson for the post-Cold War world after all?

It has become a recurrent convention in modern spy fiction for characters to long nostalgically for the supposed moral certainties of the Cold War. The James Bond film Skyfall (2012), for instance, saw M (Judi Dench) brought in front of an inquiry to defend MI6 against accusations that traditional agents have become “irrelevant”. In response, M argued that spies are more necessary than ever in an age when enemies are supposedly no longer identifiable by a uniform or a flag.

Is A Legacy of Spies, then, a more literary take on the same idea, with Smiley returning to champion old methods in the contemporary world?

Moral certainties

The viewpoint character in Legacy is Peter Guillam, Smiley’s longtime protégé, now an aged figure himself. The novel has fun juxtaposing two eras of intelligence through his eyes. He reminisces on the service headquarters he used to know, the “Victorian eyesore” with its “cranky old lifts” and “worm-eaten wooden staircases”. This is contrasted with the “shockingly ostentatious new headquarters”, where suspicion is directed at the tracksuits, the airport-style security measures and corporate speech patterns.

The old Circus of the 1970s was evoked memorably in Tomas Alfredson’s 2011 film adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Le Carré himself made a rare public appearance at the Royal Festival Hall to promote the book. Here, however, he specifically denied longing for the supposed moral certainties of the Cold War. Indeed, in his novels from the Cold War, he had regularly critiqued a nostalgic glance back to earlier traditions of heroic espionage from World War II and earlier. It would therefore be surprising indeed if le Carré himself succumbed to this very nostalgic trap.

In many ways, Legacy operates in a similar manner to Tinker Tailor, the iconic novel in which Smiley and Guillam had root out a Soviet mole in the highest echelons of the Circus. Like the earlier novel, Legacy adopts a complex structure based around flashbacks, as Guillam searches the files and his own memory in order to reconstruct an obscured past.

Yet the mystery at the heart of Legacy centres specifically on events depicted in le Carré’s initial breakthrough, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, with Guillam driven to re-examine his role in this intelligence case from early in his career. Le Carré’s latest bestseller, therefore, makes a surprisingly direct link with a novel from 54 years ago. In so doing, it offers startling new perspectives and interpretations of what long-time readers might have considered a cold case.

This may reflect how The Spy, despite its high critical profile, is retrospectively somewhat anomalous in the Smiley series. Its author described it as asking the question of “how far can we go in the rightful defence of our western values, without abandoning them along the way?” While this theme never entirely disappears from his work, The Spy remains arguably its starkest and most uncompromising examination, frame in what J.B. Priestley memorably described as “an atmosphere of chilly hell”.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold’s ‘atmosphere of chilly hell’ was effectively conveyed in the stark monochrome of Martin Ritt’s 1965 film adaptation.

For many, its mood of moral darkness provides a sense of unfinished business. As William Boyd muses, “there is something troubling about The Spy that draws you back again and again”. Indeed, le Carré’s own 50th anniversary retrospective gives a sense of wanting to revisit the story, and to situate its events within a broader context of the German intelligence war of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Certainly, le Carré takes its central moral lessons to be of relevance to the modern world. Quoting the cynical end-justifies-the-means philosophy of the spy chief “Control”, he also commented that “today, the same man, with better teeth and hair and a much smarter suit, can be heard explaining away the catastrophic illegal war in Iraq, or justifying medieval torture techniques as the preferred means of interrogation in the 21st century”.

Perhaps the message is, therefore, the antithesis of that offered by Skyfall. The Cold War period may indeed hold vital moral lessons for the contemporary world, but these tales should be regarded cautionary rather than affirmative.

And yet whatever failures Smiley’s Circus might possess in its morality, its continuing value may alternatively lie in its sense of methodology. Le Carré recently expressed his anxiety regarding Donald Trump, “a man at war with both truth and reason”, championing “lucid, rational language” as a line of defence. Against the backdrop of Brexit too, the evocation of the European Cold War subtly questions which “western values” are worth defending today.

Like the earlier generation of le Carré novels, Legacy is fundamentally concerned with finding an appropriate balance between the truth of the documentary record and factual data, and the truth of human experience and empathy. In a time when both are threatened, this is an area in which Smiley and his people still have much to teach us.

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