Smiley, le Carré, & 'A Legacy Of Spies'

The Cold War Returns To Haunt John le Carré's Most Famous Characters With His Latest Novel

It's been more than a quarter of a century since the Berlin Wall came down and the Cold War ended. There's a generation that has grown up in its aftermath, looked back on what was done, and wondered whether it was worth all the toil and treasure paid out for it. It is perhaps not surprising, in a time of retrospection about that great and most secretive conflict of the twentieth century, that one of the authors who came out of it returns to it. John le Carré, himself briefly a British intelligence agent at the height of the Cold War, does so with his novel A Legacy Of Spies and he brings forth many of his best-known characters to do so. 

John le Carré in the author's photo from the novel's hardcover edition.

The premise of the novel then is simple enough. Peter Guillam, one-time right-hand man to master spy George Smiley, is called out of retirement on his Brittany farm back to the British intelligence agency nicknamed the Circus with its modern headquarters. He's not been called in to take part in another operation but to account for one. It seems that an operation a half-century plus in the past has reared its ugly head again with threats of lawsuits by the children of those affected and parliamentary inquiries. Guilliam then finds himself sifting through documents and memories of a different era trying to come explain it all both to those involved and to himself.

The plot makes the novel a thoroughly engrossing journey back into the heart of what made le Carré's fiction what it is. There are characters from across the breadth of his most famous novels including The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It isn't just Guillam but Alec Leamas, Control (the one time head of the Circus), the future mole suspects from Tinker, and George Smiley himself. Even better is that everyone reads like they should. Those familiar with other literary canons being revisited like Sherlock Holmes and James Bond will know how hard it can be even for original authors to recapture the 'voice' of their characters and it's a high note that le Carré hasn't lost them even when it has often been decades since he last wrote them. 

Benedict Cumberbatch and Gary Oldman as Guillam and Smiley in the 2011 film version of 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy'

A Legacy Of Spies is also, perhaps as a result of that, an attempt to retroactively weave the various Smiley novels together. It's something that they weren't ever really meant to do which might be hard to believe in an era where we're inundated with sequels and series. le Carré works in elements from two of his best-known novels, linking them together despite their having been written a decade apart. There are some inconsistencies, though they can mostly be written off to faulty memory and a need for secrecy seeping into institutional memory (the latter explaining away a character's background changing somewhat). Doing so allows for the revisiting not only of characters but plot elements, filling in some holes and answering “whatever happened to so and so?” questions that have been lingering in readers minds for decades potentially.

Above all else, the novel is perhaps a message to younger generations. Ones born just before and in the aftermath of the Berlin Wall coming down, rendering the Cold War ancient history. Generations who now look upon the era with its expenditure in terms of toil and treasure, a list of terrible things done in the name of fighting communism with the lives that were lost along the way, and wonder if it was worth it. Despite it being steeped in the past and le Carré's canon (for lack of a better phrase), I think that's who this novel was perhaps written for.“What's past is prologue,” to quote an old saying and perhaps that's what the 85-year-old author is really trying to remind us of.

The novel stands as something of a triumph then. A triumph in the sense of a return to form for le Carré who has a chance to revisit some of his most famous character's and plots, to explore them from a different angle. If this is to be his last novel, something he has intimated, then author and reading public alike are blessed to call this his last hurrah. If only to do what we haven't been able to do yet: put the ghosts of the Cold War firmly to rest.

Matthew Kresal
Matthew Kresal

Matthew Kresal was born and raised in North Alabama though he never developed a Southern accent. His essays have been featured in numerous books and his first piece of fiction was published in the anthology Blood, Sweat, And Fears in 2016.

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Smiley, le Carré, & 'A Legacy Of Spies'