The cold, brutal world of Cold War espionage and its hard legacy
Title: A Legacy of Spies; Author: John le Carre; Publisher: Penguin Random House UK; Pages: 320; Price: Rs 599
Old soldiers never die but fade away but what about spies? Do they live in the same secretive anonymity of their careers or dread the spooks' curse: "May I read about you in the papers" coming true as archives open, revelations pour out and a new regime oblivious of earlier conditions or their contributions is in charge.
It is the latter fear that strikes long retired British spy as he is suddenly summoned from his uneventful retired life in the remote French countryside to London by his former service for a matter which might be a bit urgent.
The message to Peter Guillam, the trusted right-hand man of George Smiley of the "Circus" (as Le Carre termed the MI6), says that a matter in which he appears to "have played a significant role some years back has unexpectedly raised its head" and they need him to help them respond to it. And the bland message has also subtle but unmistakable threat too.
And as he goes to meet the service's current legal adviser and a woman from the historical section, he finds himself stumped to be confronted with something he fervently wished was forgotten - Operation Windfall. "Does an easing of the soul take place when you realize your worst expectations have been fulfilled? Not in my case".
For this, longtime Carre fans and followers might recall, was what formed the basis of his iconic The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). And even half a century after it, the spy-turned-writer, now 85, proves he has lost none of his powers as he provides the definite closure to the story that propelled him to enduring fame with its prequel and sequel here.
As is Le Carre's wont, the story begins midway in the unforgiving present, where Guillam, who played a small role in The Spy Who.. but came into his own with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, is asked to come clean on this disaster which ended with the death of British spy Alec Leamas and his innocent girlfriend Liz Gold on the newly-constructed Berlin Wall.
For Guillam is told that it turns out that both Leamas and Gold had children who are determined to raise the issue in the parliament, press and courts for the wanton death of their parents but the service cannot do much as it turns out most of the files on this particular operation are missing.
This leads to Guillam recollecting the story of the eventful story of what was behind Leamas' mission - and what the aftermath was, though being careful to avoid telling his interlocutors more than what he needs to, despite all their pressure and inducements. Instead he plays for time, stonewalling as much as he can before making gradual concessions.
There are also a couple of encounters with Leamas' son, who offers him a "bargain deal" for dropping the matter. But it only ends when Guillam takes matters into his own hands and contacts another old operative, who tells him how to get in touch with Smiley. And it is the old fox, who finally makes his appearance in the final few pages – well worth the wait – who settles everything.
Filled with the minutiae of espionage techniques and purposes, the back-biting and cliques and the fragile nerves of spies, operatives and helpers, Le Carre's latest work is again a taut account of the amorality, split-section decisions and deception this line of business requires in its successful practitioners.
It also places The Spy Who Came.. in a more bleak context that it was, as well as revealing the fate of many old characters never seen in subsequent works including Smiley's long term-adversary Karla and the supposed beneficiary of the Operation Windfall among others.
And it also shows how even effective spies, how much they conceal or suppress it, can never totally subdue their conscience. As Guillam observes in the beginning, "a professional intelligence officer is no more immune to human feelings than the rest of mankind", and in the end: "How much of our human feeling can we dispense with in the name of freedom..."
That is the question that Le Carre always raises – and never loses its importance.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at email@example.com)