Sydney M. Williams
30 Bokum Road – Apartment 314
Essex, CT 06426
Burrowing into Books
Reviews of Selected Readings
March 20, 2018
“A Legacy of Spies”
John le Carré
“A professional intelligence officer is no more immune
to human feelings than the rest of mankind.”
John le Carré
A Legacy of Spies
At 86, John le Carré has not lost his touch. Much of what we know about the “dark side” of the Cold War comes from Le Carré, particularly George Smiley. It is not always a pretty picture. Smiley first appeared in Call for the Dead (1961). We got to know him better in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). In A Legacy of Spies, he makes a cameo appearance – the first since The Secret Pilgrim, in 1990.
While we think of Le Carré as the chronicler of spies during the Cold War, twelve of his twenty-four novels were written after the collapse of the Berlin Wall. This story is told in the present through the eyes and memory of Peter Guillam (whom we first met in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold). Guillam was a former field agent and lieutenant to Smiley. He has been ordered back to England from the Brittany farm to which he has retired. It is because of events in the former book that make for the story in this one.
Guillame is interviewed by a pair of unsympathetically-portrayed, current employees of the “Circus,” as MI6 is known. Like intelligence services in the U.S. today, MI6 is under attack. Two individuals – now middle-aged – are seeking answers to questions as to how their parents died. The story reflects the conflict between two cultures: today’s, where youth have lived lives protected from the harshness of reality, harbored in cocoons of “safe spaces;” and, yesterday’s when spy-warriors encountered physical risks (and moral dilemmas), while working for the defense of their country. The Cold War was real for those who lived and fought it. But because that shadowy war used deception and was fought under cover, the younger generation has little knowledge of how it was fought or understanding as to why. The young professionals in the story can’t comprehend the mind-set of grizzled veterans, like Peter Guillam. What makes the novel compelling is that the reader knows that the success of “Windfall” (the mission in question) came at the expense of individual lives – and, while the young interviewers are not sympathetically rendered, we recognize there is some legitimacy to the truth they seek.
Nevertheless, our sympathies lie with Peter Guillame, even though we know, in his younger days, he could be merciless and was a womanizer. We watch his memory recall the good and seal off the bad. We also witness him, at times, be intentionally deceptive to those interviewing him. Age and years of retirement have not provided him trust or caused him to shed the shell that protected him for so many years. The story is told through interviews, the re-reading of memos written “to file” at the time, flashbacks and encounters with the children of those with whom Guillame had worked, and who died.
Mr. le Carré (real name David Cornwell) spent six years in intelligence, becoming a full-time author in 1964, which lends realism to his stories. This one will encourage you to re-read some of your past favorites.