The Spy Who Came In From the Cold – John Le Carre

spy coldI have not read much spy fiction so don’t know where Le Carre ranks in the pantheon of spy literature, but from the evidence of this book and ‘The Night Manager’, he must rank pretty high. I read the 50th anniversary edition of ‘The Spy Who Came in From the Cold’ which came with an introduction by William Boyd as well as archival material from the time of its first publication. It is widely considered to be one of the greatest spy novels ever written and is believed to have redefined the whole genre. In particular, it is believed to be very close to ‘real’ life – this belief coming from the knowledge of Le Carre’s real life experience of working in East Germany with British Intelligence. He has himself vehemently refuted this belief but the vehemence has only served to entrench it.

The novel is set in the sixties at the height of the cold war and after the erection of the Berlin wall. Alec Leamas has returned to London after running the Berlin operation for his British masters for several years. Now he is being asked to perform one last operation before he can retire; for this, he is being asked to go deep into communist Germany and betray his own country as part of an elaborate trap. It is a story though, about double and even triple-crossing, with one never quite sure who is working for who. As the story proceeds it only reveals ever more complex plots and sub plots, ending in a startling climax.

There are quite a few memorable aspects to this book. The first one is the complete absence of moralizing as far as espionage is concerned. The methods deployed by both sides are equally deplorable and at no point does Le Carre appear to take sides. This is quite remarkable for a novelist based in London and writing at the height of the cold war. The second one is that the novel is not written from the perspective of a particular character but rather an omniscient perspective. ie the author has the freedom to enter into any character’s thoughts. He cannot selectively hold back information in order to build suspense. For a spy novel with multiple twists and turns, this is a very difficult choice of perspective for the author to pull off (I noticed this after reading William Boyd’s introduction). William Boyd also describes the book as a very sophisticated piece of writing where the author leaves a lot unsaid and implicit, believing in the intelligence of the reader.

The archival material is quite fascinating too: the first book covers, prints & reprints, press coverage and ultimately the making of the movie, starring Richard Burton. I am yet to see the 1965 movie but it is on my list to watch. Contemporary author Graham Greene gave the book a big thumbs up and his quote has been reproduced on every edition since then including the one that I read: “The best spy story I have ever read”.

By coincidence, I am also reading the history of Vietnam War in parallel and that book is currently(in my reading) also in the sixties build up to the war. It is remarkable to note how much the cold war hysteria shaped the politics and culture of the day; that context is quite useful in understanding the setting of ‘The Spy…’. Overall, it is a fast paced and interesting read; I am now looking forward to the movie.

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