The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

Graham Greene called this the greatest ever spy novel that was written. It is not hard to understand such an incredibly lofty claim made by the Nobel Laureate, who himself was no alien to the genre of spy literature. In “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”, John Le Carre owns his turf, his characters and his readers. The wretched, convoluted and complex web of chicaneries, charades and shenanigans adorning and tarnishing the murky world of agents and their masters invoke alternative feelings of denouncement and acclaim! Even though le Carre has gone to painstaking lengths to assert that the mercurial brilliance of “Control” in his book is far removed from the strategems forming part and parcel of the actual intelligence network, one cannot but remain bewildered at the shady possibilities that might be the preserve of a few unseen hands and invisible heads!

Alec Leamas an inscrutable and dead pan veteran, in charge of the East German affairs, begins to lose agents at an alarming rate. When Karl Reimeck, a trusted and invaluable source of information is gunned down by the East German Vapos at the border dividing the two Germanys’ in front of the helpless eyes of Leamas, the veteran knows his time is up and he prepares himself to be ‘iced’. However, instead of putting Leamas out of his existential misery, his masters make him the unsuspecting protagonist of an elaborate, sinister and deadly triple bluff which finds himself in the heart of East Germany. An unexpected dalliance with Liz Gold, a woman of ordinary aspirations and ambitions who terribly falls in love with Leamas, a long awaited revelation of a meeting with his one time nemesis, Mundt and an inexplicable epiphany – involving a speeding car with a few children inside that keeps plaguing him – all add to the enormous essence of le Carre’s eponymous book, which although small in terms of number of pages, is still regarded in the highest of esteems even after fifty years of its publication. 

“The Spy…” is an extraordinary assemblage of emotions, betrayals and realisations. The frailties and foibles of humanity are encapsulated in a bone chilling fashion by le Carre. Destroying the myth of the spy culture, le Carre sets the readers up for a date with reality when Alec Leamas asks, “What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors, too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives.” The crowning glory of “The Spy…” lies in its insurmountable darkness. In its very bleakness, rests a comforting sense of hope and optimism. Every betrayal faced by Leamas is a serene revelation and an affirmation of the positive. Even in destruction can be unearthed, meaning. 

William Boyd justified his reason behind a re reading of “The Spy…” after close to forty decades thus: “There is something troubling about The Spy that draws you back again and again. Partly it is the sense that you may have missed something – that you haven’t fully unravelled the intricacies and nuances of the book. One of the aspects of the novel that always bothered me was the end”.

Not wishing to act as a party pooper for the new reader, I will end my review at Boyd’s justification and also with a firm conviction that this will neither be my only reading not my only review of “The Spy..”

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