Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carre

"But what is the justification then? What is it? For us it is easy, as I said to you last night. The Abteilung and organizations like it are the natural extension of the Party's arm. They are in the vanguard of the fight for Peace and Progress. They are to the Party what the Party is to socialism: they are the vanguard. Stalin said so--" he smiled drily, "it is not fashionable to quote Stalin--but he once said 'Half a million liquidated is a statistic, and one man killed in a traffic accident is a national tragedy.' He was laughing, you see, at the borgeois sensibilities of the mass. He was a great cynic. But what he meant is still true: a movement which protects itself against counterrevolution can hardly stop at the exploitation--or the elimination, Leamas--of a few individuals. It is all one, we have never pretended to be wholly just in the process of nationalizing society. Some Roman said it, didn't he, in the Christian Bible--it is expedient that one man should die for the benefit of many?"

"I expect so," Leamas replied wearily.

"Then what do you think? What is your philosophy?"

"I just think the whole lot of you are bastards," said Leamas savagely.

I have been away too long. But no matter, I am back with a vengeance, and May is--drum roll--Graham Greene month! In which I will review only books which are inspired by, loved by, or just plain written by, British author Graham Greene. Greene wrote a lot of very serious novels that explored the intricacies of his Catholic faith, but he also wrote a preponderance of what he called "entertainments"--spy novels, like Our Man in Havana, The Third Man, and The Orient Express. He called John LeCarre's Cold War novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, according to the book jacket, "The best spy story I have ever read." To which the New York Time retorts, "It may be the best spy story anybody has ever read." Zing!

It is decidedly not the best spy story I have ever read. Honestly, I see very little of what Greene finds so fantastic about it--it is taut, and cleverly conceived, but in other ways seems very unremarkable to me. The set up is this: Alec Leamas, a surly British field agent in East Germany, is put "out in the cold"--decommissioned, that is--after failing to prevent the murder of his best informant and the dissolution of his network in the country. Leamas takes up work in a library, shacking up with a pretty Jewish librarian--who just happens to be a communist, not that Leamas really cares--and ends up going to jail for assaulting a grocery clerk.

As an impoverished felon, Leamas is a perfect candidate to be approached by East German spies looking to "turn" British agents, and when they do, Leamas agrees to be taken across the Iron Curtain to tell them what he knows. But, in truth, Leamas has committed to undertake one last mission--using his position as a double agent (triple agent?) to plant evidence that his chief opponent in the East German network, Hans-Dieter Mundt, is actually a British double agent himself. What LeCarre does so well is to muddle things up so that Leamas--and the reader--begin to suspect that perhaps Mundt really is a British agent and Leamas has been sent to commit some act of espionage so secret he doesn't even know what it is.

That all sounds quite a bit more suspenseful than it is in practice. Except for a nice pair of bookended shoot-em-up scenes, the book is little more than a series of dull conversations between Leamas and his superiors, his girlfriends, or his various East German contacts. These conversations contain a few choice philosophical moments like the one I've excerpted above, but also a lot of pretty intricate details that Leamas provides about his work as a spy, which unfortunately seem about as dull and complex as I imagine spy work to actually be.

Graham Greene-o-Meter: I give this book five Greenes out of ten. Meh.


Nihil Novum said...

What IS the best spy novel you've ever read?

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