“A Legacy Of Spies” is John Le Carré’s most recent novel and the first of his that I’ve read. Up to now, I’d been put off by the rather dreary and mournful versions of George Smiley that I’d seen on TV. I picked up the latest book after listening to a Fresh Air interview with Le Carré that covered contemporary themes around ideology and patriotism that intrigued me.
What surprised me most about the book was how beautiful the language is. Le Carré writes with clarity and precision, capturing nuances of speech, thought and culture with deft touches that are evocative without being obtrusive. He moves skillfully from past to present, from lie to truth, from regret to rage, in a way that fully engaged my mind and my emotions.
The premise of the book is a present-day investigation into British security operations during the Cold War. It is told through contemporary interrogations by a rather loathsome lawyer, extracts from official, secret but not necessarily truthful records and intensely intimate memories of the retired spy from whose point of view the story is told.
This is a strong spy story, full of intrigue and deception and betrayal but those are really just the vehicle for the true heart of the novel, which seems to me to be an exploration of the nature of patriotism and the inability and unwillingness of the current generation to understand the context of the actions of the previous generation.
Peter, the retired spy under investigation, is no longer the zealous young man who faced danger, put others at risk and sometimes acted against his conscience in the service of his country. He is a man who controls his emotions, edits not just his speech but his thoughts and has a deeply embedded habit of secrecy and distrust. Yet he is and was an honourable man. Far more honourable than the men currently interrogating him who are acting not to protect their country from foreign aggression but to protect the Service from embarrassing litigation.
As I shared Peter’s memories and experiences, his secrets and his regrets, I was reminded of a time when Russia was our overt enemy, holding half of Europe in its totalitarian fist and threatening the other half with conquest or extinction. Patriotism then was a matter of survival not nostalgic flag waving.
Of course, Russia is still our enemy and still seeks to weaken or destroy us but Europe is now strong and united and free from direct oppression. The message of the book seems to be that we have lost sight of our enemy’s true nature, have forgotten the struggle that brought us hard-won freedom, have become smug and complacent and have allowed our own selfish nationalism to be used by Russia as a weapon against the rest of Europe. Le Carré is never quite so direct as this but beneath the calm, apparently dispassionate text, I can feel his rage. It is a rage that I share.
“A Legacy Of Spies” is not a polemic disguised as a novel, It is fundamentally a very human story of love and sacrifice and deception and regret and most of all, of endurance.
Tom Hollander does a wonderful job of capturing every shade of meaning in the text. You can hear an extract of his performance by clicking on the SoundCloud link below.