If you are a regular reader of this blog, you would have come to know that I am on a bit of a John Le Carré kick right now. I finished The Tailor of Panama a couple of months back, then picked up The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Unlike The Tailor of Panama, which was nice but bloated, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is short and really cold.
It’s West Berlin just after the World War, and the Cold War is on with full intensity.
The book opens with a fiftyish British spy named Alec Leamas waiting at West Berlin’s Checkpoint Charlie for the only surviving agent in his network to cross over from the East. Instead, he sees him gunned down at the border. That’s the end of his network and the end of his career. He’s finished. All thanks to a ruthless East German counterspy named Hans-Dieter Mundt.
Leamas is angry and frustrated and in a mood to get at Mundt. Control, the head of the British Secret Service sees this as an opportunity. He persuades Leamas to go into East Germany and hatch a plot fingering Mundt as a double agent and ending his career.
The rest of the book deals with how this operation goes.
This is my second time attempting this book. As mentioned in my earlier post, I had tried to read this book in my early teens, and very quickly dropped it. It seemed so very slow, and because Le Carré has a somewhat circular style of writing that doesn’t reveal things upfront, I did not have the patience to complete it.
Now, many years later, I came to appreciate and love this book for the masterpiece it is.
For one, I loved LeCarre’s atmospheric style of writing. It’s something that takes a little getting used to, but now with a couple of his books under my belt, I have gotten very comfortable with his writing style. I definitely see myself reading his entire repertoire of books.
I also love how this book is the proverbial antithesis to the glamorous action-packed Ludlum and Fleming novels. His books are more introspective, and thought-provoking. I especially love the fact that there is very little moral certainty. The British spies are not always good, efficient, and heroic.
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?
These spies have their biases, their inner conflicts, and when love gets mixed up with espionage, as it does so beautifully and subtly in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, then what will win – love for country, or simply love? Are there any winners at all in this game?
The love story is underwritten, but somehow the more beautiful and poignant for being so.
He knew what it was then that Liz had given him; the thing that he would have to go back and find if ever he got home to England: it was the caring about little things – the faith in ordinary life; the simplicity that made you break up a bit of bread into paper bag, walk down to the beach, and throw it to the gulls. It was this respect for triviality which he had never been allowed to possess; whether it was bread for the seagulls or love, whatever it was he would go back and find it; he would make Liz find it for him.
As the book proceeds and Leamas gets sucked deeper into the schemes in East Germany and London, he realizes all is not as it seems, and there may be a deeper reason behind his arrival in East Berlin. It also doesn’t help that he likes and gets friendly with Fiedler – an idealistic East German agent.
Soon, the novel comes to a close with a tense standoff, and a dash to the border. The ending is sheer brilliance – bleak but neat.
I loved every minute of this book. It’s very short, and you can read it over a weekend easily, but it leaves a long shadow. I ended up thinking about this book long after I finished it, and now I want to watch the movie version too.
Yes, there’s a movie out there – an oldie but goodie (based on all the reviews) starring Richard Burton as Leamas.
In the book, Leamas is described thus:
He had an attractive face, muscular, and a stubborn line to his thin mouth. His eyes were brown and small; Irish, some said. It was hard to place Leamas. If he were to walk into a London club the porter would certainly not mistake him for a member; in a Berlin night club they usually gave him the best table. He looked like a man who could make trouble, a man who looked after his money, a man who was not quite a gentleman.
Burton definitely seems to have morphed into Leamas in the above photo, and I am earnestly looking for this movie in my Netflix and across the interwebs.
Overall this is a book I loved. I immersed myself in a world quite unknown to me, and came out just mind-blown over just how well-written and detailed this novel was. The scene setting was masterful, and even the minor characters left such an impact. One of my favorite books this year, for sure.
Have you read this book, or watched the movie? What did you think of it?
You can also buy a copy of this book from Amazon.