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The Human Factor

By: Aaron Zack
May 25, 2018

he finest espionage novels are similar to those in other genres—their characters are memorable, like old friends, long after we have parted ways. John Le Carré’s fictional world is rich with a trove of characters he resurrects regularly. Villains, flawed heroes, and average joes fill his pages, many of whom appear first in one work and again in others, as characters, as memories in others’ minds, or in crumbling, hidden documents. The Smileys, Karlas, Esterhazys, and Prideauxs, for example, accompanied us through the Cold War and through the complicated, unsatisfactory “peace” that followed victory.

The best espionage writers also illuminate the perennial challenges all men face, whether in our world or theirs. Charles McCarry’s Paul Christopher novels emphasize perseverance in the face of danger and exhaustion; in Shibumi, Trevanian explores how one maintains honor in a corrupt world; Alan Furst’s heroes, who are caught between Hitler and Stalin, must find a way to survive in the midst of evil. Le Carré’s recurrent themes are those old constants in human affairs: betrayal and sacrifice. The origin of Western tragedy was Agamemnon’s sacrifice of Iphigenia on the shores of the Aegean, to raise the winds for the Greek fleet’s expedition to Troy. Can this be justified? Clytemnestra thought not, and so began the self-destruction of the house of Atreus.

Le Carré’s setting is the Cold War, but the dilemma—how to protect our free peoples from the enemy—is familiar. Was the West’s use of the enemy’s methods and the sacrifice of manipulated souls along the way justified? Did the ends justify the means? For our enemies, foreign and domestic, whether Marxists, Nazis or Islamists, the answer was—and is—yes. For George Kennan, the father of the Cold War containment strategy, the answer was a resounding no—our methods, and their basic decency, were far more important to our nation’s soul than any long-term goals we might set.

Le Carré equivocates a bit on this question, but strongly leans towards no. In his novel The Little Drummer Girl, the Israelis can be understood—if not forgiven—for using a drifting English actress to lure a Palestinian, who is methodically killing European Jews, into their custody. But in the case of the Cold War, Le Carré seems to think the British and American spy game wasn’t worth the candle. The victories, ephemeral and bittersweet, were ultimately corrupting. The collateral damage of ruined lives and betrayed souls was either unnecessary (the easy answer) or not worth the cost. He’s probably wrong. But we still wrestle with these questions, and his complex exploration of espionage’s “human factor” brings these questions to the forefront. Is the preservation of our liberty worth any sacrifice?

A Legacy of Spies, Le Carre’s newest novel, is about memories. Some are already forefront in the mind of Peter Guillam, an old, retired spy, and others are recalled as he pores over fifty-year-old files. Legacy of Spies returns us to the world of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Le Carré’s first and best work. In that novel, Le Carré took the reader through the twists and turns of Operation Windfall’s plot to protect former Nazi and brutal killer Hans-Dieter Mundt, a ranking Stasi officer turned by the British, from rival Stasi official Josef Fiedler, a (Jewish) communist true believer whose ambition, fervor, and insight threaten to bring Mundt down.

Saving Mundt and neutralizing his stalker was British Intelligence’s primary aim. But how? “Control,” MI-6’s inscrutable head officer, hatches an ingenious, diabolical plan: Alec Leamas, an aging, hard drinking British field operative who was unaware that Mundt was turned, watched as Mundt dismantled and killed MI-6’s East German network in order to maintain his own credibility with Stasi. Leamas’s final straw was the death of his prize agent Karl Riemeck, shot down by Mundt while attempting to cross over into Berlin’s Western sector. Leamas has ample motivation to destroy Mundt, and Control exploits it.

Operation Windfall has Leamas pretend to fall into a drunken ruin, enticing Stasi to offer him money in exchange for an extensive debriefing by Fiedler in East Germany. Leamas will then provide Control-fed information to Fiedler, leading him and his faction to identify Mundt as a traitor. The plan progresses smoothly—or so Leamas believes—although, along the way, he meets Liz Gold, a young English communist, with whom he begins an affair. This “chance” meeting had actually been facilitated by Control, who placed the two in tempting proximity. After Leamas disappears into East Germany, having warned Control “I just want her left alone,” MI-6 operatives Smiley and Guillam pay Gold a discreet visit, reassure her about Leamas’s devotion, and promise modest funds.

Unbeknownst to Leamas, Control arranges for Mundt’s operatives to lure Gold into the East for a communist youth conference. After Leamas provides Fiedler the information to destroy Mundt, Gold is brought forward at a tribunal and interrogated, revealing Smiley and Guillam’s visit. Since the operatives had obviously considered Leamas one of their own, Gold’s unwitting testimony discredits Leamas. Now revealed as a British plant, Leamas’s revelations to Fiedler about Mundt are suspect, reinforcing Mundt’s position. Fiedler is purged and Mundt—the Nazi turned British mole—is safe. Mundt seemingly arranges for the lovers to flee to the West, but has Gold shot while she tries to climb the Wall. When Leamas turns back to help her, Mundt has him shot as well, thus plugging all potential leaks about his true allegiance.

Set fifty years later, A Legacy of Spies deals with Operation Windfall’s fallout. Guillam, a young operative during Windfall, is now a melancholy, but good-natured and likable old man, retired in the French version of Winesburg, Ohio. His somewhat tedious life is interrupted by an urgent letter from MI-6. The threat of lawsuits and the disappearance of files has Circus wanting the truth about Windfall and Guillam’s part in it.

Here, Le Carre’s typical, contemporary characters appear. “Bunny,” the falsely smiling, avuncular Circus lawyer and “Laura,” the efficient, sexually ambiguous history expert who habitually begins her sentences with a commanding “Right…” are Guillam’s interrogators. Christoph Leamas, Alec’s conniving son, schemes for a payday. The Circus and, by implication, Guillam and other Windfall operatives, are targets of a wrongful death lawsuit and threatened by a Parliamentary inquiry of self-righteous politicians. Did Control, Smiley, and Guillam, members of that benighted generation which waged and won the Cold War, knowingly send Leamas and Gold to their deaths, or was Windfall a well-intentioned operation gone awry?

The real action and most satisfying parts of the novel are its reconstruction of the past through Guillam’s memories, and the old Windfall files Laura and Bunny press him into revealing and reading. The aloof, soulless technocrats of MI- 6 arouse little interest. The heart of the novel revolves around the memory of a strenuously denied, tragic love affair between the young Guillam and one of his East German agents—the beautiful, brave, and doomed “Tulip.” The novel also revisits and deepens the complexity of the tragic love affair of Alec Leamas and Liz Gold. Did Leamas, in a moment of insight and despite his admonition, realize that Control was using Gold as a sacrificial pawn, but continue the operation, and the love affair regardless?

A Legacy of Spies ends a bit too abruptly and its conclusion is unsatisfactory. It also might fail to draw in a reader unfamiliar with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold. But, for those who have read the earlier novel, A Legacy of Spies is a gripping and worthwhile read. It draws us back into the world, minds, and memories of old Cold War companions, and, for a while, immerses us in their emotions, attachments, and fates.