John Le Carré’s ‘A Legacy of Spies’ asks all the questions we’re thinking in 2017

The grandmaster of English-language spy fiction is back.

CREDIT: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP
CREDIT: Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP

Nearly three decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, its shadow still falls on the West. Moscow is once again trying to subvert the international liberal order. The horrors that liberal, capitalist nations perpetrated in their last fight against Moscow continue to reverberate in unexpected ways. And with the rise of President Donald Trump and the buckling of the European Union, liberalism appears under threat from within. This is the context in which John le Carré has returned to his Cold War roots. In the forthcoming A Legacy of Spies, the grandmaster of English-language spy fiction assesses both the fallout from the global fight against communism, and his own legacy.

Legacy operates as a sequel of sorts to The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the novel that first rocketed le Carré to greatness more than 50 years ago. A terse examination of the British intelligence service’s Cold War hypocrisies, that book—le Carré’s third, but the first to demonstrate his full potential—single-handedly expanded the possibilities of the spy novel. It also once again raised the concerns that have animated much of le Carré’s fiction: the spiritual toll of living in a world of deception, and the human wreckage that deception leaves behind.

If The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is very much the work of a morally outraged young man, Legacy finds le Carré in a far more ambivalent mood. It follows high-strung lothario and le Carré mainstay Peter Guillam, now an old man himself, as he is called to account for the crime that British intelligence (“the Circus” in the novels) perpetrated in Spy. The book’s slim plot concerns a lawsuit against the Circus from Christoph Leamas, the son of fallen Spy protagonist Alec Leamas; but le Carré is less interested in the minimal threat posed by Christoph than the low, persistent tremor of Guillam’s conscience. Throughout A Legacy of Spies, Guillam reflects on his complicity in the misdeeds of the Circus and questions the facile justification that he was acting in service to a higher good.

As the man who recruits Guillam into the Circus tells him in the first of many flashbacks, “We do feel it’s an important job, as long as one cares about the end, and not too much about the means.” But what end? The plot of Spy revolved around a crucial intelligence asset who, after the events of the novel, quickly outlasted his usefulness. Christoph Leamas, the son of a hero, grew up fatherless, embittered, and pathetic. And the Circus itself has become something unrecognizable, a shiny new office building filled with smarmy, callow strivers.

By withholding easy answers regarding the fruit of Guillam’s labors, le Carré turns the question of ends back on the reader. Western intelligence agencies—chief among them the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency—committed unspeakable acts in the fight against the Soviet Union. And while the rewards have been elusive, the price of those sins is all too clear. The USSR was defeated less by the efforts of any Western intelligence agency than by its own internal rot; but in seeking its defeat, the CIA and other agencies permanently stained the ledgers of their respective nations and reconfigured global politics in unpredictable ways.

Besides, the death of the Soviet Union, whether by its own hand or someone else’s, resulted in only a temporary respite for the West. Under Vladimir Putin, Russia has once again begun to wage a cold war of sorts against Western Europe and the United States. Putin has even turned some of the West’s own subversion techniques against it by launching propaganda outlets and financing political organizations within western countries.

In A Legacy of Spies, Christoph does something similar, tracking Guillam through the use of slipshod Circus techniques. But whereas the Kremlin seeks renewed superpower status and the return of its eastern satellites, Christoph only wants to fill the hole in his shattered life with money and vengeance. When wars end, they don’t end for everybody.

Le Carré is unsentimental, but he is not a nihilist. That’s why, after flirting with something close to nihilism, A Legacy of Spies checks in with one of the author’s most ethical characters: dogged, humble, soft-spoken George Smiley. The hero of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and several other le Carré masterpieces, Smiley has always stood out as a beacon of loyalty and compassion in a world where both are exceedingly scarce. True to the form of classical tragedy, even his greatest weaknesses have always been a direct consequence of his virtues. His excess of devotion repeatedly leads him astray, returning him to both the arms of his serially adulterous wife Anne and to the Circus, which demands his complicity in one senseless betrayal after another.

As A Legacy of Spies draws to a close, Smiley ruminates on why he remained in the service. It wasn’t just for England, he tells Guillam, but for something more.

“If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason,” he says. “I have it still.”

A Legacy of Spies is the first le Carré novel to be published since the United Kingdom began the long process of seceding from the European Union. A new age of reason seems much further away than at any point since the destruction of the Berlin Wall. But Smiley won’t relinquish his faith in the possibility for a better England, a better Europe, and a better West.

It would be easy to call Smiley deluded, or say that he is trying to excuse the inexcusable. But that wouldn’t do justice to either him or his creator. The source of Smiley’s heroism is his ability to see both a guiding light and the dark reality before him. If the light still shines for him, maybe it can shine for others.

What Smiley won’t say—or what he can’t say—is whether through his actions, both good and ill, he brought Europe any closer to the future he wishes for it. Nor does A Legacy of Spies provide any straightforward conclusion. To le Carré, asking the right questions is more important than coming up with an easy answer.

Legacy is so indebted to its predecessors that it cannot possibly stand on its own. But as an epilogue to some of the best spy fiction ever written, it is essential. In this quiet, haunting book, Guillam, Smiley, and all the rest still speak to readers across the decades.