Sunday, 25 July 2010

the spy who came in from the cold [le carré]

Reading this book is like taking a walk through one's childhood, even if it was published before I was born. For all it's ability in the first half to conjure up the strange world of post-war London, this isn't a great book. The second half becomes surprisingly bureaucratic for what was in its time a vast commercial success, as what turns out to be Leamas' trial is spun out over several chapters. Nevertheless, Le Carre has already succeeded in investing the text with all the mystique of that world which is now all but forgotten. The notion of the Communist threat, and the reality of the Cold War are things that would appear to have evaporated altogether. But for anyone born from the 40s through to the early 70s, this monolithic conflict dominated our fears, and our dreams.

Besides the way it captures the complexities of British attitudes to all this, attitudes determined by the joy of the game, as though a war had something to do with a crossword puzzle, perhaps the most telling aspect of the book is the positive light in which it presents two Communists. Firstly the ingenue, Liz, who the writing carefully depicts as someone who succeeds in seeing through both sides' game in order to discern human truths that lie behind it; and Fiedler, Leamas' interrogator, who becomes an increasingly sympathetic and tragic figure, one of the only ones operating within this world who actually has any real values. (Unless one grants Leamas this accolade, seeing his actions as a kind of heroism, rather than the alternative, the actions of a world-weary cynic.)

Looking at the writing of Zizek, whether we trust him or not, we see him critiquing materialism for its lack of idealism, something which ultimately undercuts our ability to achieve happiness, no matter how great our material comforts. Perhaps its overly speculative to view the supposedly fearsome Fiedler as a sacrificial lamb. Nevertheless, it seems curious that Le Carre, a man like Green concerned with the way the pattern of history shapes the ordinary man's dreams and happiness, should endow this initially fearsome figure with such subversive dignity.

The book is artful, and told at a brisk pace, and perhaps its hard to gauge the true impact its anti-heroic viewpoint might have had on a Britain still reluctant to believe that their noble wars had been replaced with such a tawdry one, where heroism was now, by and large, redundant.

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