Smi­ley’s last laugh


A Legacy of Spies By John Le Carré Vik­ing £20.00 Oldie price £14.19 inc p&p

‘We be tied and bound by the chain of our sins,’ says The Book of Com­mon Prayer, hence the predica­ment that be­falls Peter Guil­lam, George Smi­ley’s stal­wart side­kick in ‘the Cir­cus’.

Long since re­tired to his farm­stead in Brit­tany, he is sum­moned to London, on pain of los­ing his pen­sion, to spill the beans on Wind­fall, the ‘fiendishly in­tri­cate de­cep­tion op­er­a­tion’ that did for Alec Lea­mas, ‘the spy who came in from the cold’, and his girl­friend Liz. The files on Wind­fall have van­ished and, meanwhile, Lea­mas’s son and Liz’s daugh­ter, armed with in­crim­i­nat­ing ev­i­dence from the Stasi’s archives, are de­ter­mined to prove that the Cir­cus con­nived at their par­ents’ deaths, thus pro­vok­ing a witch-hunt that will run and run all the way to the Euro­pean Court of Hu­man Rights.

Ar­riv­ing at MI6’S ‘shock­ingly os­ten­ta­tious’ Thame­side pile, Guil­lam is con­fronted by Bunny and Laura, a pair of in­so­lent ap­pa­ratchiks who be­gin by cor­rect­ing his jar­gon: agents are as­sets now, not joes. Ad­dress­ing him as ‘Pete’, which he hates, they ex­plain that, once they have the truth about Wind­fall, they’ll know how to doc­tor it, and so ‘head off the shit be­fore it hits the fan’. Pro­voked by their man­ner, a toxic blend of con­de­scen­sion, sar­casm and men­ace, Guil­lam dis­sem­bles. Then they pro­duce their joker: Wind­fall’s ded­i­cated safe flat, where­abouts un­known to them, but not to Guil­lam, that, thanks to bu­reau­cratic neg­li­gence, is still on the Trea­sury’s books. Le Carré once said that the ‘lure’ of in­tel­li­gence lies not in its in­trin­sic worth, which is mostly ‘sec­ond-rate’, but ‘the gothic se­crecy of its pro­cure­ment.’ Cue ‘The Sta­bles’, a seedy-look­ing dwelling in Blooms­bury whose in­te­rior, ‘a scrupu­lously pre­served burial cham­ber’, has re­mained ex­actly as it was since Wind­fall was aborted fifty years be­fore. Here, be­hind a pad­locked green baize door, are the miss­ing files. And here also, to Guil­lam’s as­ton­ish­ment, is the orig­i­nal house­keeper, Mil­lie Mc­craig, whose hair, once as black as her ‘ma­lign-look­ing’ cat’s, is now as white as Guil­lam’s.

‘Pull the other one!’, I thought. But at this point Le Carré clev­erly sub­jects Guil­lam to a fresh turn of the screw, and so en­cour­ages read­ers to sus­pend their dis­be­lief and read on. Among the files that Bunny and Laura plonk in front of him is one he wrote him­self, ‘my un­pub­lished mas­ter­piece’. This de­scribes the pre­lude to Wind­fall, in­volv­ing the re­cruit­ment, run­ning and suc­cess­ful ex­fil­tra­tion of Tulip, the co­de­name for a well-placed Stasi source who is sub­se­quently killed, and whose death kick­starts Wind­fall. What it doesn’t say is that Guil­lam, who helped smug­gle Tulip out, fell in love with her, the one and only woman to steal his heart.

Ac­tu­ally, there’s a lot else it ei­ther doesn’t say, or says so cryp­ti­cally that this reader, at any rate, was left scratch­ing his head. This may be be­cause it was meant to be a de­lib­er­ate ex­er­cise in ob­fus­ca­tion, ‘rich in ir­rel­e­vant de­tail’ and omit­ting one cru­cial item, the iden­tity of Tulip’s killer. To go fur­ther into this would risk a spoiler. Bet­ter to con­sider the real au­thor of Guil­lam’s ‘un­pub­lished mas­ter­piece’.

Ris­ing 86, Le Carré re­tains a nar­ra­tive grip as un­break­able as the An­cient Mariner’s and an acute ear for the nu­ances of speech. He con­veys per­fectly the grat­ing faux-matey­ness of Bunny and Laura, such a con­trast to the coded man­darin ban­ter of their pre­de­ces­sors. And, as be­fore, he pro­vides snap­shots of the Byzan­tine bu­reau­cratic hi­er­ar­chy to which spies are an­swer­able, and where, as Lord An­nan put it, ‘the memo is more deadly than the demo’.

But what of Smi­ley (who must be half as old as time by now)? When Guil­lam asks this ques­tion, Bunny and Laura ig­nore him. He ex­ists in the files, of course, and in Guil­lam’s rec­ol­lec­tions. But it’s not un­til the last pages that Guil­lam, act­ing on a tip-off from an­other old timer, Jim Prideaux, sees him plain. ‘I be­lieve you came to ac­cuse me of some­thing,’ says Smi­ley, who then asks what cause could jus­tify his crimes, if crimes they were. And the an­swer is Europe. ‘If I was heart­less, I was heart­less for Europe.’ Well, Le Carré al­ways was fond of metaphors, and this one needs no in­ter­pre­ta­tion by me.

‘The jury’s com­ing back. Lose the mask’

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