sexta-feira, novembro 10, 2017

Spies Catching Spies: "A Legacy of Spies" by John Le Carré



The most impressive aspect is the self-examination, described late in the story. Was all the effort poured into Cold War intelligence work worth it? Did it stop wars? Did we do it because they did? Or was it a case of politicians wanting to think they are "one up" on the other fellow? And his European outlook is so refreshing. Reminds me of the heyday of Robert Maxwell's newspaper, The European". Maxwell's story is somehow akin to the world of Mr. Smiley, but will probably never be told.

What's all this guff about him not being an 'artist' and 'at its best, operates at a high literary level?' 

When is the poor man to be rid of snarky comments? Possibly the best policy is to have a journalist review Le Carré, rather than the rat pack of other, less successful, writers. Le Carré has earned the right to be gloriously appreciated without the endlessly snide bollocks debate about genre writing.

Is there any clue as the year in which this book is set? Because if it is set in 2017 (or thereabouts) George Smiley would be well over 100.

It is clear from Le Carré's earliest novels that Smiley had left "his unimpressive school" in the 1920s and been recruited, while at his "unimpressive Oxford College" by the "Overseas Committee for Academic Research" on "a sweet July morning in 1928." As such I'd be expecting George to be celebrating his 110th birthday about now. Perhaps Peter Guillam, who must be well into his 80s, merely imagined his old colleague - the way old people have conversations with the dearly departed dead, because they seem more real than those who are left alive. Le Carré employs two layers of flashback to get us into the appropriate time period. Peter Guillam, talking to us in the present day, recounts events of a few years previously, when he found himself belatedly held responsible for the events of many years earlier still. These rather awkward temporal logistics are necessary because several characters from the past make an appearance as their latter-day selves - Jim Prideaux, Millie McCraig, Smiley himself. In order for them to be still alive and well at the time Peter Guillam finds himself hauled in for questioning about that bit of unpleasantness in Berlin, they have to be older, but not too old. Smiley himself would indeed be 100-odd years old if the entire story was set in the here and now. So, we flashback...and back again.

At times it's hard for the reader to keep track of exactly which layer of flashback the story currently inhabits - but hey, this is John le Carré. "Hard to keep track" is pretty much his signature style. The only temporal anomaly which struck me is when we meet Jim Prideaux (spoiler alert, look away now), who is still living in his caravan in the school grounds, still with his Alvis parked alongside. Several years on from his arrival, now a senior member of staff and part-owner of the school itself, you'd think he would have got himself an agreeable flat in the main building by then.

Having just finished it, I was startled - like many readers - at how flat the writing is compared to Le Carre's usual lyrical exuberance and eccentric dialogue. Then I began to realise that we are inhabiting the shrivelled soul of Peter Guillam, pummelled to dust by his experience of the Circus and particularly the operation behind the events of the “Spy Who Came in From the Cold”. Guillam is not given to poetry.

I did not like it as much as I wanted to. I am usually very sure that I like Le Carré, but so much of Legacy is told in the dry, deliberately unemotional language of old case reports, and the emotionally defensive recollections of Guillam, that it's like reading a different author entirely. An author who doesn't like Smiley and Guillam very much and doesn't see why they should be let off the hook for the awful things they did. And perhaps that's the point. From the geek's perspective, Le Carré has taken the thread that runs through the Karla trilogy and beyond - that of the hunt for the Circus mole and the aftermath of his treachery, and spun it backwards to draw the earlier books into that tapestry. Hence we see the operations described there in a new light: that of the growing suspicions of Smiley and Control that an insider is betraying Circus secrets and field agents to Moscow. So that's good fun. One for the completist perhaps? You would certainly need to have read “Call for the Dead”, “The Spy Who Came In from The Cold”, and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” to get full value out of this legacy.

Flashes of it are there, where appropriate. Alec Leamas is his angry, whiskey-fuelled self. Tulip, the agent from Leamas' East German spy ring is well drawn. The little cameos of Haydon, Mendel, Smiley, Mundt, Connie and other old friends are pitch perfect. But Guillam's narrative voice is not the authorial voice you hear in most Le Carré novels: it's Guillam's own voice, that of a spy who has had the emotional stuffing knocked out of him and buried it where he doesn't have to look at it.
The point of the story is that he's being forced to confront a period in his life he's been trying to forget ever since.

Despite mostly working in a genre that relies on suspense and mystery I find Len Deighton the more re-readable as it is more character/atmosphere based storytelling. Smiley is an enigma while Palmer/Samson are flesh and blood, it is a treat to stand over Bernd's shoulder as he navigates a world out to get him. I came to Deighton late but it seems he never gets the credit or recognition of Le Carré, the literati seem to dismiss him and maybe Deighton does lack Le Carré's world view politics agenda, but I think, in every other area, he more than matches Le Carré and should be more widely celebrated.

I re-read the whole Bernie Samson series a few years ago. I had not realised until re-reading them how much of a comedy of manners the whole thing is, not to be taken anything like as seriously as Le Carre's interest in sin and redemption in a world with no gods except the heartless flags and ideologies of the establishment. I think Le Carré is a great writer. Have read all his books and some of them many times to savour his style, his love of certain human traits (mostly disreputable), how he creates character out of light and shade. But Le Carré is, as he once said about himself: “I’m writing about a closed world that has a complete disconnect from cause and effect in the real world”. It has its own rules, fantasies, notions of truth, honour, deception (I’m paraphrasing here).”

It is actually completely irrelevant.

It's about spies catching spies, not about spies discovering what President Putin is in the mind of (for example). Because no spy not even in the real world has ever achieved that about Putin or any Russian leader you care to name. The CIA in all its history never had one agent inside the Kremlin. Plenty inside the KGB as the KGB had inside MI6/CIA. You see my point?

As for 'Legacy' the opening pages are just not Le Carré. Endless amounts of guff about Peter G. (I already kind of knew) and was desperate to skip. Yes, I knew it was called the Circus, yes I knew old Pete was once a young Turk, Smiley? Yes, yes, oh, get on with it! And what's it about? Some old file in the Registry now under the microscope. Le Carre loves this plot device, uses it many times to great effect. But it's wearing a bit thin these days.

'Bit of a cliché'? That's Le Carré's problem. His characters have become cliché and passé. They belong to another age. But publishers, authors and agents, have a code - never speak ill of each other. Only in private among friends, in that closed world of publishing, can you give an honest opinion. It read like a (useful) clarification of plot holes and oddities in the originals, rather than a full stand-alone contemporary novel. I actually quite liked the modern lawsuit idea, though I do think its execution was a tad clunky, both within the SIS world, and in those extraneous characters. All that said, I read it in one extended sitting - I'm an addict!

It's possible that Le Carre, like Rushdie and a few others, suffers from bad editing. That is, no editor prepared to say this won't do. . . you got it wrong here. . . tone this down a bit. Or if there is such a one, perhaps they're ignored. It's a problem with authors who sell in the hundreds of thousands, no matter what. They have to be kept sweet at all costs. But can't wait to read this next.

I like Le Carre's style, because he conveys the emotional intimacies of a given moment exactly as one would expect them to be, in the context of the story. Sometimes, he does lead us down the garden path with a neat twist, but it all "fits". Le Carre has a rare gift and for "realism" in a fiction novel set in the Cold War period, Len Deighton is another that conveys the underlying menace of the time.

As to the ending, I thought Le Carre (and maybe even Smiley!) was being a little disingenuous. Smiley's entire career has been defined by a love not of "Europe", still less of the UK - but by a love of Germany as the epi-centre of western civilization, hacked and corrupted in turn by the Nazis, the Russians and the Americans. Le Carre's entire output seems to me to be a paean to the land of Goethe, which he regards as what "Europe" really should be....... That interpretation echoes in our times a little differently than our reviewer tells.

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