A Legacy of Spies - John le Carré

Old age marks a rendezvous with reality that provokes timeless questions. At the end of John le Carré’s new novel, his greatest creation, George Smiley, observes that “an old spy in his dotage seeks the truth of ages”.

As he approaches 86, David Cornwell, AKA John le Carré, still has to make a necessary rapprochement with his divided self, his past and its achievements. There are, no doubt, obscure and unreconciled regrets, obsessions and disappointments. But if you are lucky, as Cornwell has been, to retain your joie de vivre and your marbles, this final reckoning offers the resolution of an inner conflict. Le Carré has always loved German literature, and he knows his Heidegger: “Every man is born as many men, and dies as a single one.”

The “legacy” of his title tells us that Le Carré is in the posterity business. If he is playing for keeps, there are just three questions to which his dedicated readers will require an answer: what is A Legacy of Spies about? What is its deeper purpose? And where does it fit into his imposing oeuvre?

There’s no mistaking Le Carré’s importance. The list of his published work numbers some 24 volumes which, with the exception of The Pigeon Tunnel, his autobiography of 2016, present an impressive roll call of thrillers that date from Call for the Dead in 1961, when Harold Macmillan was prime minister and JFK had been recently inaugurated as US president.

In those far-off days, the novel of espionage seemed the perfect instrument for examining the soul of a post-imperial society. Then came George Smiley’s finest hour, a sequence of novels that elevated the spy thriller into an art form – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy; The Honourable Schoolboy; and Smiley’s People. Few English writers of the late 20th century produced fiction to match the Le Carré of these novels.

Today, nearly 30 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, we would not expect Le Carré to be writing at such a pitch. Still, with the exception of PG Wodehouse, whom Le Carré idolises as “the Master”, the English canon has rarely seen an acclaimed novelist and popular entertainer sustain such a hot streak into old age. Cornwell/Le Carré has been publishing for six decades and, on the evidence offered here, remains both fiercely driven and impressively commanding.

Still, A Legacy of Spies has an unmistakable aura of valediction. Narrated by an old hand from “the Circus”, Peter Guillam, a hard-of-hearing old man, formerly the devoted colleague and ally of his master, it describes the moment in Guillam’s recent past when he finds the aftermath of a forgotten battle from Berlin in the early 1960s coming to torment his retirement.

The letter – Le Carré does not flinch from this classic device – that arrives in Guillam’s coastal farm in Brittany summons the old spy to London to answer some highly troublesome questions about the long-buried treacheries surrounding an agent named Alec Leamas.

Not only do these inquiries plunge the protagonist into some of the bleakest moments of the cold war, it also connects the attentive Le Carré reader to his youthful bestseller The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Here, in fact, a writer who has always dazzled his readers with the reflecting mirrors of double- and triple-bluff, surpasses himself with the backstory to his career-defining masterpiece about a covert operation conducted against the East German Stasi.

Leamas, it turns out, had a son with an East German woman. This young man, Christoph, burns with vengeful rage towards the betrayals of the forgotten “Circus”. He threatens to expose the British secret service in parliament and the courts. With no Smiley about – where is he now? – the spooks must put the squeeze on Peter Guillam for the truth about Operation Windfall.

The silky interrogations of a man named “Bunny” take us into a labyrinth of ruse and counter-ruse peopled by the dramatis personae of past plots. Sinister ghosts – Bill Haydon, Percy Alleline, Toby Esterhase, Jim Prideaux and Oliver Lacon – flit through the shadowy pages of lost time. Guillam visits old haunts, and resists his interrogators as best he can in a sequence of safe houses.

Not much has changed in 50 years, except that the “Circus” is now “the Box”, and the spooks operate out of “Spyland Beside the Thames”. In place of action, Guillam must rifle through a lot of files, the documents in the case. This, perforce, is less thrilling than the dramatic quests of Smiley’s prime. Then, in the midst of this expert exposition, Guillam snaps, suddenly confessing his “outrage at having my past dug up and thrown in my face”.

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