Stephen McGinty: Le Carré’s novel remains relevant

The Cold War is over, but The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – John Le Carré’s first hit novel – remains relevant in a world where ‘the great game’ is still played behind the scenes, writes Stephen McGinty

Writer and spy novelist John Le Carre. Picture: Getty

The black and white photograph of John Le Carré is unconventional. He is barefoot and bare-chested, wearing only a pair of dark dress trousers and sitting on a plain chair, hunched slightly over a wooden table and writing longhand. He is 32 and sitting in the summer sunshine. Although the location is not noted, one can assume that it was taken in Germany, perhaps Bonn, where he was stationed at the British Embassy as a junior diplomat – a cover for his role as an intelligence officer with MI6. The pages on which he is so intently focused will become his third novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, whose 50th anniversary issue comes with a facsimile of this unusual Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.

Looking at the photograph in the handsome new hardback edition from Penguin Classics, a copy of the original from Victor Gollancz which first appeared on 12 September 1963, I thought of Vladimir Putin, the iron man of Russia whose cultivated image of studied machismo has involved numerous topless portraits of him, usually dressed in combat fatigues, his hand resting on a Bowie knife. The connection goes deeper than partial nudity, for with the publication of Spy, Le Carré opened a door to a hidden world, one of whose existence the public was unaware. Putin was ten years old and already in trouble for his rowdy behaviour at School No 193 in Leningrad when the novel first appeared – he had been banned from joining the Pioneers, the young communist elite, but was soon to discover judo and with it the personal discipline that would later serve him well as a Lieutenant Colonel in the KGB. A decade later he was inspired to join the Russian security services after watching the popular 1973 Russian TV drama Seventeen Moments of Spring, about a Soviet spy in Nazi Germany. During his long career Putin would learn what Le Carré already knew, that the patina of glamour associated with spy-craft quickly wears away.

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In order to understand the impact Spy had upon publication, it is important to understand the times. The Berlin Wall, a physical manifestation of Winston Churchill’s memorable phrase “the Iron Curtain”, began to rise in August 1961 and the following year film audiences were introduced to James Bond in Dr No – readers had already spent almost a decade in his charming, if lethal, company. Bond became the comfortable personification of the secret agent, ever ready to save the world with gun and gadget on behalf on Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Le Carré introduced the world to a different type of agent: older, more vulnerable and, tragically, expendable.

Born David Cornwell, Le Carré had already published two short 150-page novels featuring George Smiley, a small, pudgy cuckold who was also the smartest man in “the Circus”, his cunning soubriquet for the Secret Intelligence Services, MI5 and MI6, for whom Cornwell had worked. At the time, the Government permitted publication as long as it was under a pseudonym. Neither Call For the Dead nor A Murder of Quality had sold particularly well. Spy was different. In 208 pages, Cornwell painted a chilling portrait of the Cold War being fought quietly among the shadows by men in late middle age, with drink problems and empty lives hollowed out by decades devoted to the “great game”. Its hero, Alec Leamas, is a veteran intelligence officer based in Berlin who is pulled out by Control and asked to go undercover, to be fired, reduced to penury and prison and then to allow himself to be recruited by the “other side” as a double-agent in a bid to flush out a mole. The reality is that he is being used by the British secret service to ruin an investigation into their own double-agent, a former Nazi now running the East German Stasi. While James Bond ends up in bed with a drink and a beautiful woman, Leamas, who discovers love too late in life, ends up hanging from the wire of the Berlin Wall, riddled with bullets.

The book examined the central paradox of intelligence work, that while the Soviet ideology made the individual less important than the state, in the West freedom of conscience and liberty ruled supreme. But in order to protect the status quo the British secret service sacrifices one of their own for the greater good of maintaining the flow of secret intelligence. As Control says: “I mean, you can’t be less ruthless than the opposition simply because your government’s policy is benevolent, can you now?”

Upon publication Graham Greene described the novel as “the best spy story I have ever read”, while JB Priestley said it possessed “an atmosphere of chilly hell”. The Scotsman declared: “This is really it – the spy story that stands quite alone, on a peak of achievements so remote from contemporary writing in the genre that my comparisons would be irrelevant. It is also a serious novel of political importance.”

Spy became an instant best-seller, with reprints ordered every week. From his post in Bonn the author could only look on with incredulity and a mild but growing concern that what he had written as fiction was being read as shadowy fact, especially after word leaked out of his dual role. Six months later he had to endure a rather uncomfortable press conference in New York ahead of the US publication, at which journalists persisted in probing for whom he actually worked. In an ironic twist the room was mirrored so Le Carré appeared refracted a number of times, one for each guise: clerk, spy, author.

As a spy, Le Carré concurs with his old boss, who said his spy-craft achieved nothing; as an author, over a career spanning more than 50 years, he has successfully illuminated the shadows. It is not, as he writes, that his books are authentic but that they are credible. Spies are human, fallible and make mistakes, sometimes with lethal consequences. While conspiracy waltzes through his work, its dance partner is frequently incompetence. As in the real world, secrets are accidentally left on buses or in cars and the motives people have for acting are confused, untidy and rarely easily understood. When Le Carré writes about his novel The Secret Pilgrim and “a pathologically solitary cypher clerk who deludes himself into believing he is a star Russian-language student and thus delivers himself to the KGB. The poor clerk wasn’t victim of cock-up but the fatal triviality of human motive, of the hairline distinction between the harmlessly eccentric and the dangerously insane” it is hard not to think of Bradley Manning.

Although Le Carré left the service in the wake of the success of Spy, he had absorbed enough of the Circus by osmosis to make compelling and prophetic fiction. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and its search for an enemy agent at the heart of the intelligence community chimes with the true treachery of George Blake and Kim Philby. Readers do not reach for John Le Carré to be comforted. Anyone wishing this autumn to enjoy the Cold War with the assurance of a happy ending should seek out William Boyd’s new James Bond novel, Solo, in which 007 is dispatched to West Africa and the fictitious country of Zanzarim, where he finds himself in the midst of a civil war.

Instead. Le Carré acts as a guide to the immorality and motivations of those now embroiled in the “great game” which continues to be played around us in Syria, in Egypt, in Iraq and Afghanistan. Parliament this week decided Britain will sit out any direct action against Syria, but anyone who has read Le Carré will assume that somewhere on the ground is a contemporary Alec Leamas duelling with Putin’s proxy.

Let us hope he has better luck this time, that the bullets miss and he makes it safely over the barbed wire.

• The Spy Who Came In From The Cold 50th anniversary edition is published by Penguin, priced £20