John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was John le Carré’s third novel and his first major success, and even now, more than a half-century after its publication and the Cold War era it described, its powers of suspense are entirely undiminished. The opening pages transport us to the GDR, the Soviet-occupied half of Germany, where a British agent is shot while trying to cross into West Germany. His supervisor, Alec Leamas, is promptly recalled to London, where a plan is set in motion to stage his defection and frame a high-ranking German counter-intelligence operative, Hans-Dieter Mundt, a former Nazi turned notoriously vicious and effective adversary of British intelligence. To sell his defection, Leamas must be left out in the cold, so to speak: he is fired from government work, and denied his pension; he takes a low-paying job, and then, the coup de grâce, he assaults a rude store owner – thereby demonstrating, perhaps, anti-capitalist tendencies? – and earns himself a three-month prison sentence, as well as the attentions of communist intelligence agents, always on the lookout for new recruits.

The stage is set, then, for a conventional spy novel, a clever British intrigue against a ruthless adversary, but its execution demands an unusually high level of artistic control, for le Carré must juggle multiple perspectives – Leamas, our protagonist, and his handlers at British intelligence, “the Circus”; Mundt and his compatriot and rival within the East German Secret Service, a Jewish man named Fiedler; and even Alec’s eventual love interest, a British librarian and Communist Party member – without divulging too much of each person’s knowledge or motives to spoil the suspense. If that were all that le Carré accomplished, it would be an impressive feat, but he goes further, exploring the psychology of his surly secret agent, Alec Leamas, and the impact the intrigue has on his psyche. Leamas is no James Bond: he never picks up a gun, never dons a suit and tie to blend in with the rich and powerful, and eschews martinis to drink like an alcoholic, cheaply and abundantly. His job takes a massive toll on him, and le Carré goes to some lengths to demonstrate this:

A man who lives apart, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without but from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor, though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide.

This is a rather depressing description of a career popularly associated with adventure and danger, but it’s also credible, and it renders Leamas sympathetic to the reader.

There’s also something deeply subversive about this novel. Le Carré is very good at exploring the psyche of the communist ideologue, the person so committed to the revolution that they can sanction the murder of innocent men, women and children, and he exploits his understanding to great effect. In a throwaway scene, for example, a fat, officious woman detains Leamas’ girlfriend, a fellow Party member, before warning her of the omniscience of the Party: “The Party knows. The Party knows more about people than they know about themselves.” And then, inevitably: “We cannot build Communism without doing away with individualism. You cannot plan a great building if some swine builds his sty on your site.” This is the mind of a fanatic, an ideologue, someone so convinced of the rectitude of their own beliefs that they are capable of rationalizing any atrocity. But this same frightening avatar of Communist indoctrination will then eye her prisoner’s meal with naked hunger: “‘Are you going to eat that?’ she enquired, indicating the food on the desk. Liz shook her head. ‘Then I must,’ she declared, with a grotesque attempt at reluctance.” This is a remarkable passage, both funny and brilliant, for that “I must” hides a chain of logic: You have been given an extravagant gift of food, denied to so many in our society, and if you won’t eat it, it is my duty as a Communist not to allow it to go to waste. In a more telling passage, Leamas is being interrogated by the Jewish counter-intelligence operative Fiedler, who asks him a question about his personal philosophy. Fiedler is quite clear on what motivates the Communist side:

[…] a movement which protects itself against counter-revolution can hardly stop at the exploitation – or the elimination, Leamas – of a few individuals. It is all one, we have never pretended to be wholly just in the process of rationalising society. Some Roman said it, didn’t he, in the Christian Bible – it is expedient that one man should die for the benefit of many.

Leamas cannot understand exactly what Fiedler is after, with this line of questioning, and nor can the reader, at least not without a retrospective glance, but he’s seeking to determine whether the Circus, the British intelligence services, operate on a higher principle: whether they would be reluctant to sacrifice one person – in this case, Leamas – for the greater good. And what the novel reveals, in the final analysis, is that, in fact, they are happy to make that trade, happy to sacrifice their own agent, if it means victory in the larger war between revolution and counter-revolution. Victory in the game of espionage, it seems, requires the sacrifice of moral ideals, but it is precisely those moral ideals that mark the boundaries between collectivism and individualism, between Communism and liberal democracy. Le Carré sees this very clearly, and he wants us to see it too.