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Posted at: May 13, 2018, 2:34 AM; last updated: May 13, 2018, 2:45 AM (IST)

This spy keeps coming back from the cold

Sandeep Dikshit

Le Carré fans always keep a look out for the appearance of George Smiley, the fictional British spy, who rose to stardom with his first phase of spy novels. Described as a man who “travelled without labels in the guard van of the social express”, George Smiley was written-in as a master of human psychology. That was in Le Carré’s debut novel Call for the Dead where Smiley was positioned as an antithesis of the then reigning fictional spy James Bond: a podgy, bespectacled man whom youth had passed by.

Smiley was nearly pensioned off in the first novel after less than a decade of field service. Since then, to the dread of Le Carré aficionados, Smiley has lost his perch several times, only to return each time the roof of the British Secret Service fell down. And now when the Cold War is past us by well over a quarter century, other geopolitical hotspots and a different villain kept Le Carré occupied.

For those debuting in the world of Le Carré’s spies — who have feelings and fallibilities, are sometimes wounded in the heart or suffer from self-doubt, lack social etiquette but make up with their back-office brilliance — The Legacy of Spies is as good a starting point as any of his previous novels. The newbie can then move from front to back with The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) Smiley’s People (1979).

The beauty of A Legacy of Spies is that it brings nostalgia of faded characters back to life. For those descending into the world of Le Carré’s spies for the first time, it is carefully structured to unveil Smiley’s entire network of spies who come up against the Gen Next inhabiting the British Secret Service; where the pensioners must cooperate as also hold back secrets from the new kids on the block on the ‘Circus’, Le Carré’s slang for the British Secret Service.

The value systems have changed. What was a do or die contest with the Soviet Bloc during the Cold War with deaths explained away as collateral damage for a greater cause is now viewed from the lens of human rights abuses. Three of those who paid during the Cold War with their lives, now have their children standing up and questioning the actions of George Smiley, who can’t be traced. The axe falls on his deputy, his faithful camp follower, and now hard-of-hearing, the silver-haired and eternal womaniser Peter Guillam.

The drama revolves around Guillam’s interrogation where he must cooperate but hold back some of them truth to win the spy agency’s cooperation in fending off a law suit by the children of the three dead, all of whom have met him in the past. The children are damaged goods, and in a drama within  drama, the son of Guillam’s dead mate with instincts of sniffing similar to his dad, tries to get at the retired spy.

As the pages turn, Smiley’s mates put in an appearance and the entire ensemble of Le Carré’s fictional British Secret Service during the Cold War flits on stage, some in Guillam’s recollection, others summoned from their dotage to confront the past. All through silky questioning sessions, Guillam must keep one fact about “Operation Windfall” hidden from his inquisitors because they won’t understand the motivation and morality of past actions; the times have changed.

Smiley constantly flits offstage. He is mentioned in the questioning sessions as well as in Guillam’s recollections. As the novel wears on, there is a premonition: by now Smiley should be well beyond 85. Is he dead? And even if he is not, is he mentally agile to make a difference to the direction in which the probe is heading?

The master, too, should be as old as his character Smiley. And he may be slipping. For instance, why on earth should a top East German spy travel all the way to Britain to murder a double agent and risk getting caught, which he does? But Le Carré may be forgiven his occasion foible for he has served what Le Carré fans have yearned for: a closure of the saga of Smiley and his band of men and women, with the same élan when it began over 50 years back. Adieu George Smiley! Or will he come back for one last hurrah?


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