July 05, 2005

Children Waving Cheerfully Through the Window: John Le Carré and the Cold War in Microcosm

The book is a legend among Cold War spy novels, the standard by which all others are judged. But there is no glamorous 007-esque blend of shiny gadgets, spectacular explosions, and swimsuit models here. The fate of the world is not at stake here . . . at least not in the James Bond sense. No, this is a different sort of spy novel entirely. John Le Carré's 1963 work, The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, was written while the author was working for the British Foreign Service in Berlin, and it shows.

When I first read this book in 9th grade, my predominant emotions were boredom and confusion. I was not caught up in the book, and so I did not quite follow its many subtle and intricate twists and turns. Having paid too little attention to the opening chapters, my mind was unable to keep pace as the plot turned itself upside down again and again . . . When I picked it up again a few weeks ago, the only thing I could remember was some vague notion of one character betraying another (and I got that completely wrong, it turned out) and what happens on the very last page.

The true genius of this book, which I did not quite grasp the first time, has three layers, which I will get to in a moment. First, a brief rundown of the plot: Alec Leamas is the British Head of Counter-Intelligence in Berlin, directing and controlling the flow of information from double agents on the other side of The Wall. He faces just one problem: The East German Head of Counter-Intelligence, a ruthless and efficient genius named Dieter Mundt. In fact, as the book opens Mundt has just finished cleaning out Leamas' entire network of operatives. Leamas is forced to return to England in disgrace and appear before the god-like "Control" (who somehow manages to come off looking both omniscient and clueless as his character is developed).

Leamas fully expects to be relieved of his post. He has felt himself slipping gradually for years now, and his best days of espionage work are behind him . . . but Control has one final operation in store before Leamas will be allowed to permanently come in from the cold: Destroy Dieter Mundt. It was probably shortly after this point that the book took a sharp turn down a back alley and lost me the first time through, so if (that is to say, when) you read it, be sure you're paying attention. However, I have unfolded quite enough of the plot for you. If I tell you anymore, I'll have to kill you.

The greatness of the book, as I mentioned before, is particularly apparent to me on three different levels. To begin with, there is the style in which the narrative is told. We follow the action of the plot from the perspectives of two and only two specific characters (namely, Alec Leamas and Elizabeth Gold). The author is very selective, however, about when and where we are allowed inside their heads. Most of the time I felt like I was watching from the vantage point of a camera the floats above and slightly behind the characters' heads, following them as they go about their business in the story.

This is effective because, although it was the factor that originally caused me to lose the thread of the plot in my younger days, it allows the reader to make a few leaps of logic for himself. The plot is such that, while somewhat convoluted, it is quite possible to follow, and the author does not insult the intelligence of his audience by awkwardly forcing dialogue to keep us up to speed. Telling the story in this way also subtly communicates the fact that Alec is playing a very dangerous game of deceit where he must keep even himself fooled in order to avoid a potentially fatal slip.

Secondly, the plot of the book is fantastic. The opening chapter is full of tension, suspense, and frustration, effectively setting the tone, mood, and theme for what is to come. The pool of major characters which the author draws from is small and easy to track (the true motives and natures of these characters less so). Once the premise has been established, we are plunged immediately into a labyrinth of plots, counterplots, and surprise twists. Alec may (in fact, does) see a number of these coming, but the reader does not. Through it all runs a quietly understated love story . . . very simple, very tenuous (so much so that the reader hardly realizes it is there sometimes). But it is this love story that gave the book its great human, emotional impact for me during the closing chapters. And, make no mistake, it is the human element that is really important . . . that is truly at stake here. More on that later.

I recently saw a documentary involving two main people (call them A and B, for simplicity's sake). The end of the documentary had A reading a letter to B which B had written as if he were A. The challenge of the scene was in remembering exactly whose words we were hearing . . . and this situation strikes me as somewhat analogous to the way we see espionage work in Le Carré's book. Intelligence is trumped by counter-intelligence, which is trumped in turn by counter-counter-intelligence, and nothing is ever quite what it appears to be. The quality and sophistication of the narrative with which we are presented makes one wonder why the movie industry ever decided that gargantuan pyrotechnic displays were superior to a good old-fashioned triple-cross in dominating the viewers' attention during a spy thriller.

However, it is the third layer that really makes the book an enduring classic: the philosophy. The philosophy of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold is both explicitly and implicitly stated at various points during the narrative. The message it is trying to get across through this has, I think, two points which are of primary importance.

The first of these is stated at the very end of chapter 18, in a conversation between Alec and Fiedler. Fiedler is Mundt's second-in-command, and they respect each other's abilities, but Fiedler is a Jew and Mundt hates him for it. Fiedler grows to hate Mundt for his prejudice. (Side note: For some reason I can't quite put my finger on, I invariably associated Fiedler with Wilson in my imagination.) Alec is a pragmatist and an atheist, and rarely thinks beyond the immediate business at hand. Fiedler, on the other hand, is a deep thinker, a philosopher, and his insistent inquiries into the ideology of the West both annoy and baffle Leamas. Their final private exchange proceeds as follows:

"I thought a lot about you," Fiedler added. "I thought about the talk we had -- you remember -- about the motor."

"What motor?"

Fiedler smiled. "I'm sorry, that is a direct translation. I mean 'Motor,' the engine, spirit, urge; whatever Christians call it."

"I'm not a Christian."

Fiedler shrugged. "You know what I mean." He smiled again, "the thing that embarrasses you . . . I'll put it another way . . . would you kill a man, an innocent man --"

"Mundt's a killer himself."

"Suppose he wasn't. Suppose it were me they wanted to kill: would London do it?"

"It depends . . . it depends on the need . . ."

"Ah," said Fiedler contentedly, "it depends on the need. Like Stalin, in fact. The traffic accident and the statistics. That is a great relief."


"You must get some sleep," said Fiedler . . . as he reached the door he looked back and said, "We're all the same, you know, that's the joke."

Both sides in the Cold War, we are being reminded, are loudly preaching high-minded but conflicting ideals to the entire world. But in the seedy underbelly of government, where intelligence agencies work ceaselessly to undermine the enemy, is either side really practicing what they preach? Are they not both pretending to some degree to be that which they are not? For both communism and democracy, the end justifies the means when no one is watching.

The second point (dovetailing with the first) is made in a conversation between Liz (Elizabeth Gold, Alec's lover) and Alec near the end of the book (severely edited to avoid major plot points):

"It gives him a chance to secure his position," Leamas replied curtly.

"By killing more innocent people? It doesn't seem to worry you much."

"Of course it worries me. It makes me sick with shame and anger and . . . But I've been brought up differently, Liz; I can't see it in black and white. People who play this game take risks . . . London won -- that's the point. It was a foul, foul operation. But it's paid off, and that's the only rule." As he spoke his voice rose, until finally he was nearly shouting.

"You're trying to convince yourself," Liz cried. "They've done a wicked . . . he was good, Alec; I know he was . . ."

"What the hell are you complaining about," Leamas demanded roughly. "Your party's always at war, isn't it? Sacrificing the individual to the mass. That's what it says. Socialist reality: fighting night and day -- that relentless battle -- that's what they say, isn't it? At least you've survived. I never heard that Communists preached the sanctity of human life -- perhaps I've got it wrong," he added sarcastically. "I agree, yes, I agree, you might have been destroyed. That was on the cards . . . So you might have died -- today, next year or twenty years on -- in a prison in the worker's paradise. And so might I. But I seem to remember the Party is aiming at the destruction of a whole class. Or have I got it wrong? . . .

"Don't complain about the terms, Liz; they're Party terms. A small price for a big return. One sacrificed for many . . .

"There's only one law in this game . . . Leninism -- the expediency of temporary alliances. What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? . . .

"This is a war . . . It's graphic and unpleasant because it's fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it's nothing at all beside other wars -- the last or the next."

"Oh God," said Liz softly. "You don't undertand. You don't want to. You're trying to persuade yourself. It's far more terrible, what they're doing; to find the humanity in people, in me and whoever else they use, to turn it like a weapon in their hands, and use it to hurt and kill . . ."

"Christ Almighty!" Leamas cried. "What else have men done since the world began? I don't believe in anything, don't you see -- not even destruction or anarchy. I'm sick, sick of killing but I don't see what else they can do. They don't proselytise; they don't stand in pulpits or on party platforms and tell us to fight for Peace or for God or whatever it is. They're the poor sods who try to keep the preachers from blowing each other sky high."

"You're wrong," Liz declared hopelessly; "they're more wicked than all of us . . . Because of their contempt. Contempt for what is real and good; contempt for love, contempt for . . ."

"Yes," Leamas agreed, suddenly weary. "That is the price they pay; to despise God and Karl Marx in the same sentence. If that is what you mean . . . But it's the world, it's mankind that's gone mad. We're a tiny price to pay . . . but everywhere's the same, people cheated and misled, whole lives thrown away, people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men written off for nothing. And you, your party -- God knows it was built on the bodies of ordinary people . . ."

As he spoke Liz remembered the drab prison courtyard, and the wardress saying: "It is a prison for those who slow down the march . . . for those who think they have the right to err."

As Liz and Alec shout defensively at each other, they are enveloped by an enormous gray area, where flashes of black and white show infrequently through the haze. I challenge anyone to read this book and, at the end, present me with a clear-cut list of the good guys and the bad guys. It simply can't be done (or, if it can, no two lists will look alike) because invariably you will be struck with the conflict of whether to judge characters consistently based solely on their actions or based on which "side" they are on and what you know in your head they are fighting for. What Le Carré is doing here is what no one involved in a war likes to do: He is zooming the camera in on individual human faces, and we observe with horror that some of our enemies' faces look like ours and some of our allies' faces look like theirs.

As I read the book, I thought of all the different views one could get on the nature of the Cold War simply from all of the different labels the combatants apply to each other and themselves. How many communist nations during the Cold War had the word "Democratic" in them? But we call their government totalitarian. The Western world, of course, stands for Democracy and Freedom, right? But they call our governments imperialist. Are we both right in a sense in what we say about the opposing side? An imperialist government is one that practices "the policy of extending a nation's authority by territorial acquisition or by the establishment of economic and political hegemony over other nations." Is that not exactly what we were doing throughout the fifties and sixties?

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold cuts directly to the ugly heart of the ideological conflict of the Cold War, exposing to us the fact that both sides had at least one thing in common: They both used any and all means necessary (no matter how treacherous or foul) to achieve the appearance of a utopian end which could never co-exist in reality alongside such vile methods of implementation. The double life that one of those two superpowers was living eventually disconnected the ideal so far from the reality that it self-destructed. The double life that the other superpower leads has only this going for it, that it is only really practiced outside the borders of that nation. I should have hoped that the example of the Soviet Union would have taught us that much, at least.

Lest I get too far off topic, though, let me just wrap this up with one final thought. The book employs a fantastic metaphor from a combination of Alec's memory and his imagination. And it connects beautifully to what the book is talking about on the most basic level . . . more basic than the global or the ideological or even the national: at the level of what Alec calls "ordinary, crummy people." It is the recurring, nightmarish image of a small car with smiling, waving children in the backseat, smashed to pieces by two enormous trucks.

Posted by Jared at July 5, 2005 03:14 AM | TrackBack