A lot of us would agree, no doubt, that John Le Carré’s novels set in the cold war are some of his best, and, perhaps, you are like me in regretting the fact that at least in fiction the shift in international politics and the accompanying espionage has left us without the world of the Circus as created for us by Le Carré. We may even some of us share a kind of nostalgia for the apparent certainties of the cold war years of our childhood, youth, and early adulthood.
In this latest novel, Le Carré returns to that world and to characters first created several decades ago, and while A Legacy of Spies stands perfectly independent of its forebears, you will probably find it has greater resonance if you have read its predecessors, especially The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Peter Guillam, you will remember him particularly from Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy and Smiley’s People is summoned back from his retirement on his French farm to London to account for his actions during the cold war. What was acceptable all those years ago is no longer acceptable especially when it comes to deaths resulting from covert actions, and when descendants of the dead are “demanding full disclosure, punitive damages, and a public apology” (36).
The story unfolds as a somewhat fragmented first-person narrative. Guillam records what happens to him in his dealings with the service from which he has long retired. He is required to work through old files from when he was young and explain himself and his so long ago actions. With Guillam, we read the old memos and documents relating particularly to operation Windfall that resulted in the death of an agent and of an “innocent woman” (1). What the files record and what Guillam affirms to his interrogators do not always match with Guillam’s own memories.
In many ways, the action of the novel lies primarily in the past, and through this device Le Carré is able, to a certain extent, to carry us back to the mood evoked in his earlier novels with their settings behind the wall in the DDR or in the rain soaked streets of an Eastern European capital.
However, while much of the action may lie in the past, in many ways the concerns of the novel are more recent, focusing as they do on changing attitudes, changing contexts, on a changing world, a world that asks the question: “Who will atone for our father’s sins, even if they weren’t sins at the time?” (31). A very contemporary question indeed, and one senses that Le Carré is arguing that the present cannot understand the past.
One of the constants of Le Carré’s work is his skill in understanding the conflicts between idealism and realpolitik. His novels convey the kind of world-weariness that results in pity rather than cynicism. An angry Smiley tells Guillam, “‘We were never pitiless. We had a larger pity. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. We did not know it then’” (261). Are these words of regret or acceptance? Or both?
In A Legacy of Spies, Le Carré takes us once again into the world of generational distrust, the grey, shadowed world of moral ambiguity, conflicting loyalties, and misunderstood idealism that lasts despite all. I found it a not optimistic but melancholically hopeful book.