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 Among the files that Bunny and Laura plonk in front of him is one he wrote himself, ‘my unpublished masterpiece’.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’