I was inspired to read this by the trailer for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which I saw before Moneyball. This is le Carre’s third book and one of the precursors to Tinker. It features George Smiley, the famous spy from Tinker, but for only a few moments. The main character of this book is Alec Leamas.
Leamas is a British spy, and recently, all of his agents in the East German section were killed (talking 1960 maybe). He’s back in London and seems to be playing the ruse of being retired, angry, and drunk, but he’s still working one last job for Control. He consents to this last job because it’s his chance to get back at Mundt, his East German nemesis and the guy responsible for exterminating his whole section.
This is a short, but classic spy novel. You really never know what’s going on, but you can follow it very easily. That’s a great compliment to le Carre. You’re in the dark, but you can easily survey the field so you’re not blind. He leaves stuff out that he thinks you don’t need to know, but not too much stuff. He’s mastered that part of the craft.
I’m starting to understand why I was so frustrated by this when I was younger. I’m a lot more patient now. I didn’t feel manipulated when I finished, I felt outfoxed.
And I enjoy the dialogue reflective of the times. There was a great conversation between Leamas and his captor (friend or enemy?) in the middle of the book about the justification for spying. It’s in the chapter entitled Pins or Paper Clips (page 120 of my paperback) and some say it reflects the mixed emotions of Brits towards the spying and turbulent times of the Cold War. There was a point where the East German agent justified spying because it was in the interest of the state, which he viewed as much different from the point of view of the west.
“You see, for us it does,” Fiedler continued. “I myself would have put a bomb in a restaurant if it brought us farther along the road. Afterwards I would draw the balance – so many women, so many children; and so far along the road. But Christians – and yours is a Christian society – Christians may not draw the balance.”
“Why not? They’ve got to defend themselves, haven’t they?”
“But they believe in the sanctity of human life. The believe every man has a soul which can be saved. They believe in sacrifice.”
While reading this I did not grasp the social commentary le Carre was putting forth. The wiki article for this book seems well-informed. I’ve started to read wiki articles for a lot of the books I read and love the “cultural impact” discussions. Plus, caring wiki editors often toss in links to cool stuff. For instance:
- Malcolm Gladwell re-reads this book once very five years.
- It’s one of the Top 100 novels ever according to Time back in 2005.
** PLOT KILLERS FOLLOW **
This is grim, depressing, and stressful stuff. There isn’t too much action, but there is torture and cruelty. And the ending is not pretty. I’ve read two le Carre books this year and both have ended abruptly and not good for the protagonists. This one ended with an especially touching scene, as two lovers get shot dead in the last few paragraphs.
This is classic spy literature and I’m tempted to classify it as lit. But I won’t. It’s a must read if you like spy novels.