Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold: John le Carré

From the description at Goodreads:
In the shadow of the newly erected Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas watches as his last agent is shot dead by East German sentries. For Leamas, the head of Berlin Station, the Cold War is over. As he faces the prospect of retirement or worse—a desk job—Control offers him a unique opportunity for revenge.
I consider myself quite fortunate that I was able to go into the story knowing very little. It is hard to say that one enjoys reading a book with such a cynical, dark theme, but it is a great story and I am very glad I finally got around to reading it. And viewing the movie too, after all this time.

John le Carré writes so eloquently, and his writing engages me. He develops his characters bit by bit and pulls me into the story. Somehow I knew that this story would not be a happy one, but I kept hoping for some glimmer of a happy ending. The story was very suspenseful, but also filled with fear, distrust and betrayal. The last few chapters of this book were unrelentingly dark, and I was appalled at the manipulation of human beings in the name of the greater good.


The setting of Germany after the Berlin Wall has gone up was especially appealing. In le Carré's introduction to the edition I read, he talks about going to see the Wall as it was built... and how terrifying it was.
It was the Berlin Wall that had got me going, of course: I had flown from Bonn to take a look at it as soon as it started going up. I went with a colleague from the Embassy and as we stared back at the weasel faces of the brainwashed little thugs who guarded the Kremlin’s latest battlement, he told me to wipe the grin off my face. I was not aware I had been grinning, so it must have been one of those soupy grins that comes over me at dreadfully serious moments. There was certainly nothing to grin at in what I saw, and inside myself I felt nothing but disgust and terror, which was exactly what I was supposed to feel: the Wall was perfect theater as well as a perfect symbol of the monstrosity of ideology gone mad.
That brought back memories from my preteen years. My father was in a National Guard unit in Alabama that was called up to active duty for nearly a year during the Berlin Crisis. He left in October 1961 and was stationed in France for a few months and in Germany the rest of the time.  I don't remember how I felt about the Berlin wall going up; I only remember that it was a difficult year for me, my mother, and my sister and brother while my father was gone. It was two years later when this novel came out and I don't remember anything about the book from that time either, although I have read that it created quite a stir.

I read this book at this time because it is listed in many places, including John le Carre's web site, as one of the Smiley novels. Having read the first five of the Smiley novels, I can see now that there is no need to start at any one point, but I think I gained a lot from reading this book and The Looking Glass War before moving on to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The 3rd and 4th books feature Smiley only incidentally, but they show another side of him.

Here are a couple of posts that give an overview of John le Carré's books: at Tipping My Fedora and Mrs. Peabody Investigates.


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Publisher:   Pocket Books, 2001 (orig. pub. 1963) 
Length:       212 pages
Format:      Trade paperback
Series:       George Smiley novel
Setting:      Germany, UK
Genre:        Spy thriller
Source:      I purchased this book.




24 comments:

  1. TracyK: Thanks for a fine review. I am going to have to find time to read the book again. It has been a long time I cannot remember any details.

    I am always interested in hearing about how distant events affect lives far away and then to have the actual events brought alive in Le Carre's work. I am sure it was hard to have your father gone. I appreciate you sharing the story.

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    1. Thanks, Bill. It was difficult to have my father gone, especially at that stage of my life. This book is definitely worth a reread.

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  2. Thanks Tracy, really enjoyed reading about your personal connection to the period - I enjoy reading books set in the 1970s for the same reason! There is I think a difference in the depiction of Smiley in the books from the 60s compared with the later ones, but then he's not really in this one that much anyway. I do think that this book makes a lot more sense if you've read CALL FOR THE DEAD though as it is a kind of sequel.

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    1. Sergio, I do wish I had reread Call for the Dead before A Murder of Quality, after reading some comments in other reviews. Now I am wondering whether to reread it now before I move on to The Honorable Schoolboy and Smiley's People, or read it sometime after I finish the others.

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    2. Well, personally, I'd re-read it sooner rather than later - there are a lot of connections between the two but some are fleeting references so you may not remember them if you wait too long :) Also, Smiley is barely in SCHOOLBOY so it can wait ...

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    3. OK, I will take your advice. I was hoping you would say that.

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  3. Thank you, Tracy, for sharing your story. It was a scary time for a lot of people, and your personal connection to it all is fascinating. And The Spy... is a classic, in my opinion. The writing is excellent, and the characters are memorable.

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    1. A wonderful book, Margot, but dark and depressing in the end.

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  4. I read this in the late '60s when I was about 16. I remember that it made a tremendous impact on me but I can't remember anything about it now except for the ending. I probably should reread it. Thank you for the review and the reminder. :-)

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    1. I wish I could remember more about the 60's, Debbie. Fascinating to read about that period now.

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  5. I read this book and enjoyed it, too, Tracy. So glad to see it reviewed here. That ending made me sad. Interesting how this book brought back memories of your father's service in the National Guard. I bet it was a terrifying ordeal. There were parts of this story that were suspenseful and like I said above, very sad. I didn't think that the author romanticized it ala James Bond. He did a great job in showing the fear and stress in doing these kind of jobs.

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    1. Le Carre gave us a very different picture of spies and spying than Bond, Keishon. I like Len Deighton's take on this time also. Bond is fun, too, but more fantasy, I think.

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  6. Tracy, this has been on my wish-list for I don't know how many years. I like le Carre's novels a lot. It was interesting to read about your father's service in the National Guard. I didn't know they could be stationed outside of the US.

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    1. Prashant, I have been talking about reading this book and others by le Carre for years. Finally got around to it.

      My father was in the Air National Guard for a long time and was even called up for a year during the Korean "war" but he was sent to San Antonio, Texas for that one. I think when you are called up to active duty, you become part of the Air Force and thus they can send you anywhere. But I don't claim to be an expert.

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    2. Tracy,
      I recently read this one for my Classics Club. I read the 50th anniversary edition (paperback), which had an interesting introduction written by Le Carre in 2013. I really appreciated your comments.
      Judith (Reader in the Wilderness)

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    3. Judith, I am thinking of coming up with a Classics list, although you know I always prefer crime fiction and espionage. Will you be writing up your comments on the book?

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    4. Yes, I will be posting about it. I read so many books in March, that I'm trying to finish my thoughts on each one.
      I'm having a bit of a problem trying to say something intelligent about The Spy Who Came in from the Cold because I've never read many books in the spy/espionage genre. So it will be interesting!

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    5. Good, Judith, I will be looking for your post. I am way behind on posts also. I often struggle to have something to say about the books I read. I know I like them but articulating why is hard for me... without being repetitive. I also think that someone who doesn't read a particular type of fiction may bring different ideas out.

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  7. Ordinarily I don't like noir, Tracy, but I believe part of my enjoyment of The Spy Who Came in from The Cold, aside from Le Carre's marvelous writing--characterization, mood, voice and plotting--was the larger scope, the Cold War tableau as opposed to the sordid little wiles of selfish people. It also has a personal significance for me, reminding me of my arrest in East Berlin on an excursion there in 1970. Here's little write-up I did for Fictionaut.com: Berlin Terror

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    1. Mathew, That is an interesting and very scary story about your mishap in 1970. Thanks very much for the link.

      I agree with you about the quality of le Carre's writing. Bleak or not, I like to read his books. I am not sure I will want to reread this one, but will hold on to a copy regardless, just in case.

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  8. Such a dark book. I watched the film and re-read the book in the past few years, and found it very well-written but almost too sad, and melodramatic (in a quiet way - if that's possible!)

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    1. It was dark, darker than I had imagined, Moira. I did not mind the melodrama, but the betrayal bothered me.

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    2. The plotting is especially clever and intricate. For me the grace shown by Leamus's courageous sacrifice at the end reminded me of the narrator's sacrificial stand in For Whom the Bell Tolls. I believe Spy is a true classic of the form.

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    3. You are correct, Mathew,about the plotting. I never suspected where it was going.

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