Welcome back to the Culture Conquistadors Book Club! We’re so glad that you decided to return for another helping of book love. 1 Last month, we discussed L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. Unlike our commentary, that book was short and sweet, mostly because of its treasured place at the head of the Children’s Literature table. This month, for Spy Month, we’re cranking up the difficulty a notch or two as we read John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which celebrates its fiftieth birthday this year.2
Alec Leamas, our protagonist, is a former station chief for the British Secret Intelligence Service who has been recalled to headquarters – the Circus – by his director, Control. Even though his last assignment was less than successful (everyone died!), Leamas is surprised to find Control asking him to stay on for one last mission. The target: Hans-Dieter Mundt, the golden boy of the East German Abteilung, a former Nazi and renowned Jew hater. The mission: convince the Abteilung’s interrogator Fiedler that Mundt is a double agent. The catch: Leamas will have to be “turned,” which may involve the enemy using some less-than-savory tactics.
James: What a difference a month makes, huh? The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is about as far away from last month’s read as one could get. I have to admit, one of my fantasies as a kid was to be a field agent for the CIA. Obviously, I’ve come to the realization that I’d be far more useful as a data analyst, behind a desk. But we all know my penchant for the glamorous spy life, from dedicated Bond fandom to enjoying USA Network’s Covert Affairs with Piper Perabo.
Le Carré’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a very different view of the spy life. There’s a lot more dirt and a lot more lies. Much like a spy in the field, as a reader you really don’t know who you can trust. So let’s lead with this, do you trust these characters? Do Le Carré’s characters seem more real? Could you see this being accidentally filed in the non-fiction section?
Charles: I think it’s fascinating that you lead with that question; it really gets to the crux of the matter here. You are an unabashed Bond lover, I concur, and we both know that one of the big pieces of Bond lore is that his creator, Ian Fleming, lived that life himself, at least to some extent. He based Bond on the people he met in the service, but we can both agree that he threw in some flourishes here and there – life in the field probably involved a few more sweaty surveillance-filled nights and a startling shortage of bikinis.
David Cornwell, who writes under the pen name John le Carré, also worked in Fleming’s world of operatives and agents – he was inspired to write The Spy Who Came in From the Cold while working as an MI6 agent in Berlin, where a wall he abhorred to his very core was being built. Accordingly, le Carré, willing to lay blame on both sides, is more than happy to wallow in every gray area and shadow that Fleming is all too happy to gloss over. I wouldn’t trust any character here as far as I could throw them, because le Carré imbues them all with such depth and complexity and tragedy. Now that doesn’t make le Carré’s more nuanced portrayal of spycraft any more “real” or “non-fictional” per sé: dude’s a skilled fiction writer who uses every tool in his arsenal – symbolism, foreshadowing, diversion – to tell a killer story. I will never confuse le Carré’s work for non-fiction or memoir.
Now if you’re asking if I prefer le Carré’s approach to mythologizing the Cold War over Fleming’s, the answer is hell yes to the nth degree. 3 The Spy Who Came in From the Cold floored me. It didn’t let me in easy, since it refuses to give the reader all the information needed from the outset, but as this book peels back layers, it beckons you further and further into its complex web, smattered with double crosses stacked upon double crosses. And then you’re all the way in, and it closes the door behind you, and you’ll never want to go back to Fleming again. Or at least I won’t. I’m not so sure about you. When (spoiler!) le Carre has his “Bond” and his “Bond girl” killed brutally in the final chapter, two people actually standing for something they believe in, I was so engrossed, so viscerally shocked at the audacity of it all, that I knew I’d never be able to look at the escapist fantasy of the immortal, unattached, philosophy-free Bond again. But what of you, Bond fanatic? Did le Carré change your worldview? Or were you neither shaken nor stirred?
James: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is a great read. But it wasn’t worldview shaking, just ever so slightly stirring. I believe I’ve had a fairly clear and complete picture of spycraft, even though, yes, James Bond remains the primary influence on that picture.
That said, I would highly recommend le Carré’s work for anyone who hasn’t seen the “darker, grittier” side of spies. I think it would be rather enlightening. What we see is that Western intelligence agencies used methods that are not becoming of the ideology they were trying to advance to the greater public. In that way, this book reminds me very much of Zero Dark Thirty. The torture of prisoners is not exactly a pillar of democratic ideology and yet there it is, laid out bare for all to see. That contradiction shades every character. Nobody in this book is particularly likeable. Even the most innocent character, Liz Gold, has issues that would make me unable to be her friend for long. But unlikable as they are, they all contribute enormously to the development of the story and the picture le Carré paints for us.
Charles: Good points, all. And yet, I have to push back on one of the points you make: “Nobody in this book is particularly likeable.” And that is so close to the truth.
From Alec Leamas (a petulant, cranky homophobe) to Control (simultaneously menacing and ineffectual) to Liz (a naïve waif) to Mundt (a despicable human being), most of our cast here is, to be kind, off-putting – I agree that, while Leamas is a great protagonist, he’s not someone I’d want to swap stories with on a Friday night. He’s not a charmer like Bond.
But one character in this novel is; one character is written to be charming, likeable, smart, efficient, soulful, a seemingly great man. For this book to truly register, that compassion for that character has to register, because the minute it does, we, the Western audience, are supposed to find our minds opened to new possibilities.
Fiedler is the enemy, the lead interrogator for a nefarious organization we are built to hate. After all, we both know that, as an “interrogator,” his job is not limited to “asking questions,” is it? If Fiedler can follow through on his (very correct) hunch and finger Hans-Dieter Mundt as a traitor to communism, then he will set the British cause (ostensibly our cause) back five years, ten years, maybe more. This being the case, why does le Carré want me to like him so darn much? (And boy do I. I love Fiedler as a character so much. This book is, truthfully, dullsville before he shows up.) Why does he make Fiedler the only character with a heart, a philosophy he can articulate, a charming glint in his eye? 4 Why does the author leave this comparison from Liz Gold as the last word on Fiedler:
“How can you turn the world upside down? Fiedler was kind and decent; he was only doing his job, and now you’ve killed him. Mundt is a spy and a traitor and you protect him. Mundt is a Nazi, do you know that? He hates Jews… what side are you on?”
Leamas fights Liz’s assertion pretty hard in the car on the way to the Wall, saying it’s not about good or bad but about win or lose, but I think he ultimately has a pretty big change of heart. Do you think Liz’s defense of Fiedler’s humanity is ringing in Leamas’s ears when he jumps down on the wrong (or is it the right?) side of the Berlin Wall and dies right next to his beloved Liz Gold. Do you think this is his attempt to turn the world “rightside up” again?
James: I don’t think le Carré is purposefully making Fiedler more likable than the other characters. I certainly don’t like him more than any other character by any large stretch. But I do appreciate him. This little bit (in my case) of likability is just innate to his characterization because we appreciate that he stands firm in his beliefs and he’s above board with his actions. He’s smart and loyal, traits which we can all appreciate.
As for Leamas, I’m not sure his jump is his attempt to turn the world “rightside up” again. Maybe it is his realization that he doesn’t want to be a part of this world anymore. He’s tired of being a tool in somebody else’s belt and just had his last hope at a normal life gunned down. Is there really anything left to live for on the West German side? Hasn’t he just become a dulled instrument unable to see anything but grey?
Charles: I guess I don’t see why you don’t dig Fielder’s honest and intelligent charm more, but I have to give credit where it’s due, I think you’re reading of the ending of the book is perfect – Leamas tries mighty hard on that car ride to keep things black and white. There is a greater good, he argues, and while the death of Fiedler sucked because he was a solid dude, Control’s manipulation of people’s lives contributed to that good. I think he almost convinces himself too, turning himself into such a repulsively obedient speakerbox for Britain’s “at any cost” philosophy that Liz can barely stand to be in the same square mile as this man she once loved by the time they reach the wall. I think it might have stayed that way too, if Leamas had not witnessed Control’s last chess move – of course Liz, a walking liability, could not return home; she was always meant to die. Fiedler asked to be a soldier in this war, and so Leamas can rationalize his death; but as for Liz, his love… the only mistake she made, the only thing she volunteered to do, was to love a broken old spy like Alec Leamas. I think her death erases any sense or black or white Leamas could see. He is as much at fault as anyone else, as Mundt and Control and Smiley. They’re all wrong and they’re all right. As Leamas falls, all he can see is grey.
And with that note on the tone-perfect ending of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, let’s end this, the second installment of the Culture Conquistadors Book Club.