It’s been labelled many things, including ‘the definitive spy story’ or ‘the best spy story ever written’, and in many ways forms as the signature John Le Carré novel. It took me a few years and two attempts to get around to reading it, but then again my first attempt was hampered by my own impatience. Older and wiser, I've finally taken the vaunted steps into this dark world.
In the height of the Cold War,and the shadows of the iron curtain, the British Intelligence hatch a plan to entrap a high level German officer. The plan though, involves a Trojan-horse like operation that may result in them knowingly sending one of their own agents to his death.
When I first attempted to read this I was still a teenager, and couldn’t get to grips with the initial pacing. So the target is a more mature reader. But you grow accustomed to the pace as well as the style of the narrative – as certain things occur in an atypical timeline, learning of conversations and events that have already happened, to punctuate and better explain events in the present. Once you’re in the groove though, the pages will turn quite swiftly.
“... I chose le Carré. God alone knows why, or where I had it from.”
>> David Cornwell on choosing his iconic pseudonym
Painted by the dull colours of his time in the service, David John Moore Cornwell – pen name John Le Carré – had to forcibly retire from British Intelligence (MI5/MI6) in the 60’s because of the success of “Spy”. British tabloids somehow got hold of his true identity and the rest is history.
Most of the great authors of the era tend to have some inside knowledge of the game (Robert Ludlum had his sources and friends within the CIA, Frederick Forsyth used his journalistic research skills for ‘The Day of the Jackal’), so the gritty and cold realism of his third novel seemed too good to be true in many respects. True enough, the world had never seen a book like it. It was, and still is the antitheses of the Spy novel we’re used to; namely the glossy, quirky, action packed and romanticized 007 archetypes. There are no gadgets or posh locations here, its all stark and in shadows, or alternatively, cold blinding and all exposing light.
What struck me was the way Cornwell describes characters and makes the ‘grey area’ of the spy world so apparent. Seldom do you find a villain so grating and sinister simply by the nature of the description of the character’s physical appearance. The antihero is a man you wouldn’t ordinarily like… and that is essential to the tormented beauty of this story – it’s simply about people, who happen to find themselves on opposing sides of a wall. They may of course have different values, opinions and beliefs, but when you disregard the dividing lines, it’s hard, or impossible to tell them apart and decipher the good from the bad. Of course the pace does quicken, but it's more of a tightening, and the tension in the climatic scenes is unparalleled.
If you enjoy this genre, then of course it goes without saying that this is a must read, a ‘must own’ even. It is a cold hard hammer of a spy story.
Sometimes we do a thing in order to find out the reason for it. Sometimes our actions are questions not answers.
John Le Carre, Magnus Pym in "A Perfect Spy"
“Once she had cried out, and there had been no echo, nothing. Just the memory of her own voice.”
>> 'The Spy who came in from the cold' - John Le Carré
"A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world"
>> John Le Carré
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