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A Legacy of Spies (2017)

by John le Carré

Other authors: See the other authors section.

Series: George Smiley (9)

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1,991778,298 (3.88)43
"The undisputed master returns with a riveting new book--his first Smiley novel in more than twenty-five years Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is living out his old age on the family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, and involved such characters as Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, George Smiley and Peter Guillam himself, are to be scrutinized by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications. Interweaving past with present so that each may tell its own intense story, John le Carre has spun a single plot as ingenious and thrilling as the two predecessors on which it looks back:The Spy Who Came in from the ColdandTinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In a story resonating with tension, humor and moral ambivalence, le Carre and his narrator Peter Guillam present the reader with a legacy of unforgettable characters old and new"--… (more)
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English (63)  German (4)  Spanish (2)  Danish (2)  Catalan (2)  Greek (1)  Dutch (1)  Italian (1)  All languages (76)
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Fascinating recontextulisation of Le Carré's early work. While there is little actual plot, this still works on many levels — a commentary on modern sensibilities and revisiting historic events; conversely, a revisiting of old conflicts, looking at their effectiveness now their immediacy has past; a revisiting by Le Carré of his early ouvre, refelcting on the interplay between the different stories; ultimately, there is a unexpectedly passionate and disarming pro-European cri de couer. Definitely not one to start with, but I found this very moving and enjoyable. ( )
  thisisstephenbetts | Nov 25, 2023 |
Really good ( )
  clarkland | Nov 12, 2023 |
Several chapters into “A Legacy of Spies” I wonder if the whole book will be a continuous interrogation of the protagonist, Peter Guillam, by the officious Bunny, who represents Peter’s former employer, known to the world as MI6 but more properly called the British Secret Intelligence Service or SIS. Despite his silly name—he immediately tells Peter that everyone calls him “Bunny” and, in the next breath, wonders why that is (perhaps he admits it up front because he figures that Guillam will find out from someone else)—Bunny can be menacing, but in the polite way that perhaps only a British bureaucrat can achieve.

Fortunately, the story is not one long interview and does open up more, but since it is about the present insisting on a reckoning with the past, it is mostly told in documents that Peter reads, many of which he originally wrote himself. It uses questions about the past or reflections on written reports as springboards for Guillam’s flashbacks. These flashbacks often reveal more than the documents, but he is determined to hide these additional details from his inquisitors.

Guillam, a retired spy, is a former associate of John le Carre’s most famous character, George Smiley, and a minor character in some of le Carre’s previous books, including “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.” I haven’t read any of these previous books, mind you, but I have seen several of the movies and miniseries based on them, including two versions of “Tinker.”

For those not familiar with le Carre, his stories are usually cynical tales of intrigue and double(and triple)-crossing. This one might be most interesting to those familiar with “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” either the 1963 book or the 1965 movie, which made le Carre the dean among grown-up spy-genre writers during the 1960s.

Le Carre’s spies are not James Bonds, dispatching arch villains with witty aplomb. They are often ordinary and vulnerable men, even if sometimes clever – not to say diabolical – whether they are protagonists or antagonists. Indeed, the ultimate question in any le Carre novel is whether there is a moral difference between the supposed good guys and bad guys. More often, it seems that everybody is at fault.

Fifty years after the events related in “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold,” the son of that novel’s protagonist and the daughter of the woman he tried to save are suing MI6 in general and Guillam in particular for hanging their parents out to dry and for deliberately, with alleged callousness aforethought, putting them in mortal danger.

Bunny wants Guillam to help him reconstruct what happened so that MI6 can fight the lawsuit (or shift blame away from itself and onto Guillam). Guillam knows that it was a lot more complicated than his inquisitors seem to or want to understand – that even the crafty Smiley, whose boss, Control, sent Alec Leamas into the cold, was helpless to rescue his man when human nature altered the plan. Guillam is self-serving, too.

While Control and Smiley were responsible for much of the deception and betrayal, and British double agent Bill Haydon made life extra-dangerous for everybody, Guillam did a few things he is not proud of. Still, he feels he could not have done differently. He reflects at one point that he was trained to deny everything, so why does MI6 now expect him to tell the truth about anything? (The truth is that they don’t expect him to be honest.)

Enter Christoph, the half-British, half-German illegitimate son of Leamas, who tracks down Peter and says he would be willing to drop the lawsuit if Guillam paid him one million euros (about $1,138,655 as of December 2018). Guillam, who always plays it close to his vest, does not tell Christoph explicitly, but he clearly has no intention of giving him a penny.

Why is le Carre revisiting the story that made him famous? Partly it might be a case of reveling in glory, but he is also meditating on how things have changed since then. During the Cold War, it was the West—the United States, the United Kingdom, and most of Western Europe—against the Soviet Union and her allies in Eastern Europe, with Germany divided between East and West. There was a sense on both sides that the stakes were so high that all sins committed in the pursuit of victory were justified, and that there would never be any reckoning for those who crossed ethical lines.

Thirty years after the Cold War ended, with the political-economic collapse of the Soviet Union and the more literal collapse (or, rather, demolition) of the Berlin Wall, it is now a different world: one where the past as well as its residents—should they be so unlucky as to have survived into the present—are judged by today’s standards for the actions that they took back then.

The book is full of observations that remind us of how things have changed. The current headquarters of MI6 is a massive, modernistic building above the Thames River. It cannot be hidden anymore than it can easily be destroyed (except in fanciful James Bond movies). It is completely unlike the spy service back in Peter’s day, which was spread among various Victorian buildings that could have belonged to any government department or even been private residences as far as the public was concerned.

Within the spy agency in the present, there is an inability to take seriously the security measures that seemed so necessary back then. Most of Smiley’s precautions were meant to keep suspected-but-not-yet-proven mole Bill Haydon out of the loop. (Haydon is a thinly disguised version of real-life mole Kim Philby, who infiltrated MI6 as a young man and rose to power over several decades while passing intelligence to the Soviets and causing many British agents and their foreign assets to be captured, tortured and killed.)

To Bunny and his contemporaries, this additional layer of cloak-and-dagger within the cloak-and-dagger agency seems almost a joke. If Bunny’s associate, Laura, were really, as her designation suggests, the personification of “History,” then she ought to appreciate better than she seems to that nobody back then knew how the Cold War was going to come out, whether it would end with a whimper, as it did, or with a planetary bang, as it certainly seemed that it could have at the time.

The following dialogue (set in the early 1960s) hints at how compartmentalized everything was for purposes of secrecy:

Peter Guillam: There’s something about the Windfall operation I don’t understand and feel I should.
George Smiley: Should? By what authority? My goodness me, Peter.
Guillam: It’s a simple question, George.
Smiley: I didn’t know we dealt in simple questions.

Nevertheless, Smiley gives Guillam a version of the truth but still leaves out details, and Guillam knows it.

Smiley: Do you now have all the information you require?
Guilam: No.
George: I envy you. (pages 222-223)

While reading this novel, I felt the need to see (for the fifth time, perhaps) the movie “The Spy who came in from the Cold,” just to remind myself of the events covered in that story but only alluded to in this one. You know how people often say that they dislike how the movie version alters a beloved book? Well, I can see from this novel how the movie version of “The Spy” altered that original book. For example, Guillam, a character in both novels, is not in the movie at all. In both books, the female protagonist is Elizabeth Gold, but in the movie her name is Nancy Perry. One consequence of this is that while Gold is Jewish, Perry is not.

Although Smiley told Guillam more than he let Leamas know, Guillam only fully understood what had happened, after the fact. He also later learned that the victory won by the operation was short-lived enough to bring into question whether it was worth two lives. In the present, he realizes that he could be made to take the fall for things he was not responsible for but which he has covered up ever since, out of a sense of duty to country as well as personal loyalty to Smiley.

Guillam claims at one point that the deaths of Leamas and Gold were entirely the responsibility of Windfall, the East German double agent. But is that only half true, and does he really believe it, or is he still trying to protect Smiley? Did Smiley and his superior, Control, need Gold dead just as much as Windfall did?

At the end, Guillam realizes that the only person who can help him is Smiley himself. Finding Smiley—something his interrogators have their own reasons for doing—proves not so easy, but if anyone can, it’s Guillam.

Sometimes, le Carre is inscrutable while at other times he is just very British (with some German thrown in because half of the story is set in Eastern Europe, especially Berlin).

For examples:

“Leamas entered the nightclub alone and headed for the Damengalerie, a bar set aside for single women in search of custom.” (page 207)

Translation: He headed for the “ladies’ gallery,” a bar set aside for prostitutes. “In search of custom.” How very British.

But check this out (and explain it to me if you can):

“…[I]n strolls Jim Prideaux with Windfall’s latest batch of crown jewels. They’ve been flown in by microdot or carbon; Jim’s [Jim has] hand-lifted them from a dead letter box in denied territory; they’ve been passed to him personally by Windfall in a one-minute treff in a Prague back alley.” (221)

Now, this passage is rife with tradecraft (spy-craft) terminology, which I will attempt to translate, but beyond that it still does not make sense to me. Microdots or microfilm were a staple of spy-craft in the 1950s and 1960s, being incredibly small photographs of documents or blueprints. Carbons could have been carbon-based typewriter copies of paper documents(?).
“Windfall” is the code name of a double agent. “Crown jewels” are the secret documents stolen by the double agent from his own side and passed to MI6. Maybe “denied territory” is enemy turf.

A “dead letter box,” I presume, is a place where a secret message or document can be left by one party and subsequently picked up by the other so that the two agents do not meet face-to-face. If so, why does le Carre say that “they’ve been passed personally by Windfall in a one-minute treff”—Treff being a German word for “meeting” implying a face-to-face encounter?

The question is, did Prideaux and Windfall meet in person or not?

There are also the odd usages that make me wonder whether they are Briticisms or not. For example, le Carre uses the word “indoctrinated” to refer to people who are in on a secret operation. I would have used the word “initiated” in the same context. Unless this is just a case of spy-speak, maybe “indoctrinated” is the more British way of saying this. ( )
  MilesFowler | Jul 16, 2023 |
Would this book be as good if we didn’t know all that we do, if we hadn’t read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, and seen the TV series and the movie? I don’t know, but this new novel reminds us that Le Carré is a genius at infusing this and those novels with duplicity. Smiley’s Ann, every plot turn, every structural trick, moles, double agents. We are immersed in it, and we feel like everything depends on our spying, like all of philosophy must emanate from deception, and, to quote Robert Duvall’s character in A Civil Action, “the truth is at the bottom of a deep deep hole”. Among the theories of the origin of genus Homo’s oversized brain, I favor Darwin’s notion that it must be sexual selection, like the Peacock’s tail, but I also like the idea that even if that is true, the idea that it evolved to tell stories and to deceive must play a part. We are able to read this novel easily, despite its complexity, and follow the changes in time, place, and point of view, but this is only possible because that’s how we think, at least to some degree, in everyday life. Old spy Peter Guillaum is called from retirement on his farm in Brittany back to England to face accusations about the real meaning of his activities before and during the action that make up the plot of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He must mislead his interrogators, protect himself and protect his old friends. He is forced to descend through layers and layers of historical deception, in which he and his friends lied to the enemy, to the spies they were running, to other parts of their own organization, and to themselves. The climax is nothing much from a traditional plot point of view, but we get to revisit our old friend George Smiley and hear him tell us if there is a point to it all, and what it might be. ( )
  markm2315 | Jul 1, 2023 |
This is, surprisingly, my first Le Carre novel. I’ve watched several film adaptations including The Constant Gardener. I have been waiting to see what was in store for spy enthusiasts. I was not disappointed and was fascinated with the narrative structure of Legacy. There were many pleasing discoveries in this work. The major aspect was that all the minor characters, which are necessary for every spy novel, had some trait which made them nevertheless significant. The best character was the Irishman Alec Leamas who was funny and pathetic at the same time. The last good Irishman I enjoyed was the assassin from Braveheart who tried to betray Wallace. If you are not familiar with spy novels or espionage in general this work might be too much for a first read. But if you know anything about WWII or Cold War spy craft you will love this calm reminiscence of past operations. Le Carre worked in the British Intelligence during their worst time ever. That was when the Cambridge 4, led by Kim Philby were burning agents left and right. Although Guillam, and everybody else, doesn’t like “the Americans” it was the FBI’s Hoover who caught Philby and tipped off the British Secret Service about what he was doing. I’m sure every Le Carre novel isn’t about rehashing Philby but real-world experience does permeate the distractive conversations, types of interrogation questions, and hypothetical plans of action. I was pleased this audio book was unabridged and recited so well. No added music or sound effects. ( )
  sacredheart25 | Jun 18, 2023 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
le Carré, Johnprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Östergren, KlasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Hollander, TomNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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Epigraph
Every man is born as many men and dies as a single one. Attributed to Heidegger
Dedication
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What follows is a truthful account, as best I am able to provide it, of my role in the British deception operation, codenamed Windfall, that was mounted against the East German Intelligence Service (Stasi) in the late nineteen fifties and early sixties, and resulted in the death of the best British secret agent I ever worked with, and of the innocent woman for whom he gave his life.
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Information from the Italian Common Knowledge. Edit to localize it to your language.
… sarò una specie di studente fuori corso costretto a prepararsi per un esame che avrebbe dovuto dare già da un pezzo. Di tanto in tanto l'allievo dal talento inespresso sarà trascinato fuori dall'aula per essere interrogato da esaminatori che, nonostante abbiano conoscenze inspiegabilmente inferiori alle sue, passeranno il tempo a torchiarlo. Di tanto in tanto sarà così scioccato dalle sciocchezze che ha commesso in passato da essere tentato di negarle, ma le prove che lo condannano usciranno dalla sua stessa bocca.
La scrivania a cui sono seduto non è affatto una scrivania, ma un tavolo con i cavalletti sistemato nel bel mezzo della biblioteca, come la forca per un condannato a morte in piazza. Le librerie alle pareti sono sparite; restano, sulla carta da parati in rilievo, alcune tracce della loro presenza, come ombre delle sbarre di una cella.
Quando la verità vi raggiunge, non fate gli eroi: scappate.
Visto alla luce della lampada a olio, il suo viso scavato appare contorto per l'età e la sofferenza. La sua schiena sbilenca si appoggia alla modesta tappezzeria. I torturati sono una classe di persone a sé stante. Si possono fare ipotesi su dove sono stati, ma mai su quello che hanno riportato indietro.
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"The undisputed master returns with a riveting new book--his first Smiley novel in more than twenty-five years Peter Guillam, staunch colleague and disciple of George Smiley of the British Secret Service, otherwise known as the Circus, is living out his old age on the family farmstead on the south coast of Brittany when a letter from his old Service summons him to London. The reason? His Cold War past has come back to claim him. Intelligence operations that were once the toast of secret London, and involved such characters as Alec Leamas, Jim Prideaux, George Smiley and Peter Guillam himself, are to be scrutinized by a generation with no memory of the Cold War and no patience with its justifications. Interweaving past with present so that each may tell its own intense story, John le Carre has spun a single plot as ingenious and thrilling as the two predecessors on which it looks back:The Spy Who Came in from the ColdandTinker Tailor Soldier Spy. In a story resonating with tension, humor and moral ambivalence, le Carre and his narrator Peter Guillam present the reader with a legacy of unforgettable characters old and new"--

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