The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, by John le Carré, Read by Frank Muller, Recorded Books, 1987
Reading the introduction John le Carré wrote for the trade paperback edition of his most famous novel, 1963’s The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, you get the distinct impression that his relationship to the book is filled with love and with hate. Surely most artists are pleased when one of their pieces breaks out from the mass of contemporaneous works and relieves them from the associated day-to-day occupational burdens that make writing a catch as can catch activity. Financial independence is the authorial daydream we believe will finally free us up to do something serious and really worthwhile. Yet having an unqualified success, in our Western Romantic Tradition, is akin to a kind of artistic failure — how could it be that good if that many people like it is the common refrain. And authors are no less susceptible to this widespread mythology than anyone else.
Indeed, though, how much better praise can you get for a spy novel than Graham Greene naming it “the best spy story I have ever read”? Not that Greene’s books are themselves strictly speaking, spy novels, rather existential and/or theological meditations in the thriller form. Like Greene’s work, le Carré’s novel, while a bit more technical in its spy arcana, does focus on many of the more interesting questions involved in a life in counterintelligence and espionage. The issue of identity when every aspect of your life is a lie, even to your closest loved ones; the notion of truth; the addiction to secrecy and cloak and dagger; the competition of philosophies and world-views. It is likely that with le Carré’s life experience working for the British Foreign Service, MI6, his intimate knowledge of that world prepared him to address such thorny complications. It is this intellectual consideration that gives the work its heft and its power, leaving it to stand as a thinking-person’s response to Ian Fleming. (It is oddly the more well-known Brit Bond who appears more boom-boom explosion American-style than le Carré’s cooler heads; the only thing apparently British in the Bond oeuvre is the insistence on cool unflappability.)
And while this novel may begin with an almost Bondish action sequence involving a blown spy in East Germany making a desperate flight to cross through Checkpoint Charlie, it’s not at all like the testosterone and adrenaline spy thrillers of the Hollywood sort, more a slow chess game featuring many sacrifices of a personal nature. Like the overrated but well-regarded classic, The Defection of A.J. Lewinter, this book features most of the suspense in the slow and gradual unfolding of information, rather than bullets flying. The chase drama is relived at the end, in the most perfunctory manner, but it’s really only a window dressing for the main character’s final development as a complete human being. Most of this spy novel’s thrills are internalized; it is about coming to terms with yourself, about questioning how far you’d be willing to go for revenge, for your political beliefs, and for love. You watch the slow unraveling of the protagonist’s plans and you wonder, can he pull it off, will he succeed, are there levels above him, wheels within wheels, how much does he understand and how much is his ignorance being used to help him or trap him?
Without giving too much of the book’s twists and turns, I can summarize this much. Alec Leamas returns to London’s spy network (called anonymously Service, headed by the likewise anonymous Control) after the last of his agents in East Berlin has been killed by the head of the Abteilung (German counterintelligence services), a shadowy figure named Hans-Dieter Mundt. Ostensibly disgraced, Leamas and Control concoct a plan to publicly humiliate Leamas and convince Soviet intelligence that some pounds and some respect would buy the ex-spy’s cooperation in revealing all he knows. Leamas is offering himself as bait to get close to Mundt and to frame him and trick the Soviets into liquidating him themselves. What Leamas can’t know, what Control needs Leamas not to know so as to provide unfeigned outrage, is just to what extent the British are playing a risky game and using Leamas for goals of which he is unaware.
What follows then is a slow unfolding of the plot Control and Leamas hatch, very little of which we, as readers, are privy to prior to its revelation. As the plot begins to unravel once Leamas is in East German custody, it becomes harder and harder to discern what is part of the plan and what is made up as we go along. This creates the perfect situation in which to explore double-crosses, triple-crosses, quadruple-crosses, and beyond. It underscores the very specific existential aspects of spying and intelligence work of this nature: is your identity deep within you and inviolate or is it exactly how it appears to others (and further is it compartmentalized and how you appear to this person and that person and that person, or is it a whole of which people only see fragments, and what about your fake identity, and so on)?
As le Carré puts it:
A man who lives apart, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief. For him, deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without, but from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earn a fortune, his role may forbid him the purchase of a razor; though he be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide.
Aware of the overwhelming temptations which assail a man permanently isolated in his deceit, Leamas resorted to the course which armed him best; even when he was alone, he compelled himself to live with the personality he had assumed….Only very rarely, as now, going to bed that evening, did he allow himself the dangerous luxury of admitting the great lie he lived.
All the while the more overt spy story is tightening and ratcheting up the tension, this psychological aspect is threatening to collapse. The whole of the novel has the jittery quality of someone spinning far too many lies to too many people while trying desperately to remain outwardly calm. Throw into the mix the tenuous and elusive qualities of Leamas’ romantic entanglement with a young British member of the Party prior to being taken into East German custody, and the recipe seethes.
I’d have sworn prior to listening to the novel that reader Frank Muller was not, in fact, British. A bit of research on the man demonstrated that he was, in fact, not British. But listening to his narration here, you’d be hard pressed to believe it. I’m not entirely certain I’d ever listened seriously to any of Muller’s previous works, but he has the most amazing capacity for accent, for delivery, for the idiosyncrasies of character speech patterns you’d swear you were listening to multiple readers at times. The motorcycle accident that gave him brain damage and ended his career robbed listeners of what would have proved an unchallenged history of brilliance, but recordings like this stand as testament to the man’s brilliance.