Moral ambiguity: It seems to be a difficult concept to grasp these days. There is only right or left; left or wrong; ally or enemy. All sides today, it would seem, fail F. Scott Fitzgerald’s oft-quoted test of a first-rate intelligence: “the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.”
That line may summarize the characters of John Le Carré’s oeuvre as well as any other. Throughout his Cold War classics — indeed, through most of his 24 works of fiction — there are not so much heroes and villains as compromised, complicated individuals one decision away from landing on the wrong side of history. Evil is present, of course, with some men and women decidedly darker and more murderous than most. But even the killers never seem quite so distant from the books’ better angels.
In his 24th novel, A Legacy of Spies, released by Viking Books on September 5, Le Carré has returned to the people and plots of his two most iconic novels, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963) and Tinker Tailor Solider Spy (1974). The book is being billed as his first George Smiley novel in more than a quarter-century.
It’s not. Not really.
Smiley is less a character in this book than a specter, a legend living in the shadows. For much of the story, it’s unclear if he is still alive at all. Instead, this is the story — told in the first person (“a truthful account, as best I am able to provide it”) — of one of Smiley’s former disciples. Peter Guillam is a half-French, half-English member of the British Secret Service trying to live with his demons on a family farmhouse in bucolic Brittany, France. Guillam is a man of divided identities, seemingly more French than British, except when he’s spying and seducing in the name of the United Kingdom, which is how he’s spent most of his life. He prefers Pierre to Peter, and loathes Pete. As a Breton-accented boy dispatched to safety in England during World War II, he learned that his village of Les Deux Eglises had been conquered by Germans. He was told his father, an Englishman who signed up at the British War Office as early as he could, died a hero for the cause. He was recruited, and perhaps born, for that cause — one where the ends always justified the means, one that divided the world, cold and clear.
In the Cold War that followed, there was no room for moral ambiguity. Yet, scratch the surface and one begins to see that all was murk. Truth was merely a concept, an ever-shifting starting point. Double agents were everywhere, and could be anyone, up to the very top of command.
Which all starts to sound rather familiar and resonant for our times. No wonder this book is being treated as a massive literary event over in England. It’s not just that Le Carré is a master who is still, astonishingly, at the peak of his powers at age 85. It’s that his half-century-old spy fiction is sounding more and more like a parable for the present.
Peter Guillam is among the conflicted. He knows his sins, his lies, his rationalized seductions and betrayals. He knows he’s awaiting a long stretch in purgatory before any gates open for him. If he’s not quite reliable (any narrator who promises to tell the truth in the opening lines must be suspect), he is at least relatable. He wanted to be good, wanted to do good, and believed in those he followed. He’s just not sure if any of them did.
Peter’s weakness, and his principle strength as a spy, is his talent with the opposite sex. The book could have just as easily been called The Legacy of a Lothario. “My women over the years, the loves, half-loves, quarter-loves,” as he calls them — they are the principle theme of his confessions. He took advantage in moments of weakness, used his charm, his ability to transform into whatever male object these women desired — dashing Frenchman being his go-to specialty, be it named Adrien or Jean-Francois or Marcel.
Beyond his evidently irresistible Frenchness, Peter himself expresses confusion over his continued success with the ladies. He tells us that through the years multiple women have told him that he “had no aptitude for sex,” that he “lacked the true instinctual fire,” that he dances badly. And yet, over and over, he is told by one and all that he was a ladies’ man par excellence. When Peter’s old operations come under scrutiny, his lawyer asks in exasperation: “You begin to see the picture? You’re a professional Lothario hired by the British Secret Service, and you roped in susceptible girls as unwitting accomplices in harebrained operations that fell apart at the seams. True?”
“Untrue,” answers Peter. But by this point we no longer know what to believe. Did those operations really fail? Was he an innocent just doing his job, unable to resist the romantic pulls of his French heart? Or was he as layered and calculating, as shadowy as his master, George Smiley?
When he finally does appear, Smiley is as inscrutable as ever. He’s just “an old spy in his dotage,” lingering each day over his books in a library. You want to believe the act, just as you want to believe Peter is a guiltless Casanova. But then you remember: These are spies. There are no answers, only new depths of doubt and confusion. Truth is memory, and memory is subject to change.
“But we do feel it’s an important job,” George tells Peter in their very first conversation. “As long as one cares about the end, and not too much about the means.”
A Legacy of Spies
By John le Carre
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 7, 2017