Following the phenomenal success of “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold” (“The Spy”), John le Carre, was forced to defend a deluge of surmises and conjectures regarding the internal machinations of the British Secret Service, from awestruck critics. He took painstaking efforts to emphasise and reiterate the fact that the workings of the intelligence were far removed from the sly and mercurial acumen of “Control” in his novel.
“The Looking Glass War”, (“The Looking Glass”), which immediately succeeded “The Spy” reads like a deliberate and deft apology to its predecessor. Where “The Spy” is a surgical, sinister and scintillating exercise in frightening co-ordination, “The Looking Glass…” is a pathetic demonstration of fumbles, bumbles and lapses. If “The Spy” is flawless to its last murder, “The Looking Glass” owes its very essence to the attribute of flaw. But nonetheless, it is a novel of paramount interest.
Now coming to the novel itself. The British Intelligence has clearly delineated roles and responsibilities for each of its constituents. Thus while “Circus” assumes sole responsibility for all tasks political, the “Department”, which was active in running a network of spies to infiltrate the Nazi regime is largely inactive, playing a passive role. When a British Agent from the Department is murdered in a foreign territory trying to get hold of a roll of film from a commercial pilot, the Department decides to take matters into their own hands. The film apparently contains incontrovertible evidence of Russian rockets being built in Kalkstad, an isolated stretch of country abutting Rostock in East Germany. The Department after scouring its internal database for a suitable agent, lands on a naturalised former Polish operative Fred Leiser. Leiser is given extensive training for a month at Oxford where he is looked after by John Avery, a non operational desk personnel. The veil of secrecy separating the workings of the “Circus” from the operations of the “Department” takes centre stage and Leiser is infiltrated into East Germany with sub standard equipment for company.
Leiser’s escapade is one of betrayal, arrogance and negligence. In the trivial battle for one upmanship between two warring departments, regard and respect for humanitarian aspects is brow beaten, abused,humiliated and sacrificed. Covering up irresponsible lapses takes precedence over saving a life sacrilegiously put in danger. Finger pointing and blame games are the canaries in murky mines. By the time Leiser realises that he is a mere pawn in a bigger game of complexities, he has no one but himself to come away unscathed.
“The Looking Glass War” is yet another feather in le Carre’s already distinguished cap.