Peter Guillam is living a calm retirement at the family homestead in Brittany when he is summoned back to London, and reminded of his ‘lifelong duty to attend’ his former masters at MI6. At the Stalinist monolith that now houses the Intelligence Service, he is asked about an Operation Windfall, and learns that the children of the agent Alec Leamas and the English woman, Elizabeth Gold, are in the process of suing the Service, and him, for causing their deaths at the Berlin Wall.
What follows is Guillam’s account both of his interrogation and his remembrance of the events of another operation, concerning an agent, code named Tulip, who was part of a network in East Germany run by his friend Alec Leamas, the best agent he ever knew. Both take place amidst the growing realisation that MI6 has been penetrated at a high level by a Russian mole.
Just as much as Guillam is giving us a legacy of any number of spies, so John Le Carre is presenting his own legacy of spies, a reflection on the secrecy and building of false characters and pretend emotions that are so much a part of his own trade as a writer, as well as those of spies. The two stories, the hunt for information about the past by the service and Guillam’s own recollections which he keeps as much as possible secret, intersect, but they also move away from each other, not least because of the way the business has changed. This is symbolised by the buildings: the stark facelessness and crushing architectural weight of Artillery House against the ramshackle Circus, or the safe house still run Millie McCraig; or by the face these modern bureaucrats are unable to do a simple effective search or cope with what used to be called, in the days before electronics, tradecraft.
The story is LeCarre as sharp as ever, in fact, it’s as if the old LeCarre has been, like Guillam, ‘recalled to life’ as Dickens would have had it. But what makes it work is the contrast, the way the service has itself changed positions, and the way the operations are revealed so skillfully through a combination of truth and lies, as in all of LeCarre’s best work. Those familiar with The Spy Who Came In From The Cold will have some idea of where it is all going, and a much better picture of some of the later details of the story, whereas those aware of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy will know the deeper background of what is going on. Neither is necessary, of course, but the awareness adds depth. In this sense, we might consider A Legacy Of Spies a valedictory work, as anyone who saw LeCarre’s interviews around publication might surmise.
There is the paradox of age. Guillam appears to have been born in 1931, like LeCarre himself, and LeCarre’s house in Cornwall is a sort of mirror image of Guillam’s in Brittany. Guillam is writing his story sometime around 2010, which would make him 79, still fit and active and full of sharp-edged memory. But how old Jim Prideaux, Millie McCraig and yes, George Smiley are is a matter of some debate, and they all seem as sprightly as ever. But remembering LeCarre’s own age as he writes this novel, those who make age a sticking point may well be missing the point. It is Smiley’s appearance, at the end, which strikes the note of legacy the strongest, and the nature of what the current agents might call a ‘mission statement’ might surprise some readers, because of its overtly telling stance aimed at modern Britain’s politics. But behind it is the memory of the tragedies, the lost lives, the miscalculations involved in all those years of playing the game. Smiley’s legacy may have been a failure to actuall leave a lasting legacy, and LeCarre is sensitively aware that neither Smiley nor he were granted the perspective to see the long term effects of what their business accomplished, or didn’t. LeCarre’s work has been a marker in the world of spy fiction for almost six decades, his peak still barely matched. This novel reminds us of his legacy, and becomes a major part of it.
A Legacy Of Spies by John LeCarre
Penguin £8.99 ISBN 9780241981610
This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets