Thursday, June 21, 2018

Reading group: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carre

Neither John nor I had ever had any inclination to read this famous book - voted one of the 'All-Time 100 Novels' by Time magazine - an espionage fiction that would inevitably, we felt, foreground plot over psychology and language which are our main interests in fiction. However, one great thing about our group is that it forces you to read books you otherwise wouldn't (and thus opens you up to insights you would otherwise not have had), and so when Ann suggested it we agreed, and I got on the train to London, dutifully powered up my Kindle and started reading, only to find myself instantly immersed.

Set in the year of the completion of the Berlin wall (and written very soon afterwards), the story opens as Alec Leamas, head of British secret service operations in Berlin, is waiting at the checkpoint to receive his last remaining operative escaping from the East, only to have to watch him gunned down as he tries. With all of his operatives now assassinated by the East Germans, Leamas is recalled to London and, motivated by personal revenge, agrees to pose as a defector in a British plot to take out the head of the East German secret service, the vicious ex-Nazi and anti-semite Mundt.

Although the book is written as I expected in a spare, almost functional prose, to my surprise I was immediately taken by the seedy early-sixties atmosphere it conveys, as was John. It's an atmosphere of oppression immediately striking one as entirely political, conjuring as it does a sense of the moral uncertainty and bankruptcy that are central to this tale, and which feels entirely authentic and a far cry from the slick glamour of James Bond. After his return to London, Leamas is summarily 'let go' by the security service with little pension and appears to be on a disaffected downward spiral, taking to drink and ending up in jail. Although I was clear that this was all a plot to attract the attention of East German secret service recruiters, the omniscient narration keeps the reader at a remove from Leamas's interiority, and much information about his actions and motives is withheld from us. Therefore, since I didn't know the plot (unlike most people, I guess - I haven't seen the film, either) when the narration tells us that Leamas 'looked confused' in conversation with his East German recruiters, I wasn't clear whether this was part of the act that he was putting on for their benefit, or whether he was really confused, and as a result as I read I felt a little critical of the handling of the narrative voice. By the end of the book I knew which it was, and am more inclined now to feel that by withholding information and creating such confusions for the reader the book formally enacts the political tricksiness and moral slipperiness of which Leamas will turn out to be a victim and for which it indicts not just the East German state but the British.

All of us in the group agreed that this is why the book was groundbreaking, contrasting strikingly with the Us-and-Them ideology of conventional thrillers. Ann had opened the discussion by saying that she wasn't quite sure about the book, but seemed to become more positive as the discussion went on. Mark, Clare and Jenny really loved it. John, however, had failed to go on reading it because of the lack of psychology and interiority - characters chiefly portrayed via their appearance (often including the fifties/sixties spy-novel stereotype of hat and mackintosh) - and an utter absence of emotion in the narration. He also objected strongly to the sexist portrayal of Liz, the young woman with whom Leamas gets involved (and whose passive and over-amenable character I felt didn't exactly fit with her political activism as a member of the local branch of the British Communist Party). Mark defended this last as being 'of its time'. I said I did feel a certain lack in the matter of psychology: the only psychology really was about who was manipulating whom. I conceded however that in a way that was the point: what the book is about, as I think Ann said, is the psychopathic psychology of governments which makes the psychology of individuals irrelevant. It operates not on a psychological but on a political level that is entirely relevant to political events today, and I was very happy to have (finally) read it as such. (And it is, after all, emotive in the end).

Our archive discussions can be found here and a list of the books we have discussed, with links to the discussions, here.

1 comment:

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