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On Its 50th Anniversary, An Appreciation Of John Le Carre's Classic Spy Novel
Federico Varese

CORNWALL — Every year we holiday in a small village in Cornwall, where there’s a church, the odd gift shop, a gastro pub and a bar. From the main street, concrete steps lead to a beach that is almost always deserted, and buffeted by the wind. The few brave souls who venture into the water make sure to don wetsuits. We, however, are content to roam freely on the unspoiled sand, waiting for the tide to go out and allow us access to the coastline’s second bay.

The “we” is a somewhat disparate group of people: a Siberian grandma, two Anglo-American children and a Russian mother, plus a suitcase full of books. This year my wife Galina read, with tears in her eyes, The Reason I Jump, written by a 13-year-old Japanese boy, Naoki Higashida, who has managed to escape the prison of autism and recount his inner life. The book was recommended to us by family friends who live around here, in a large house that stands high at the edge of the earth. I re-readThe Spy who Came in from the Cold, by John Le Carré. It is hard to say why, for the third time, I picked up this classic of English literature. Perhaps because I associate Cornwall with Le Carré, who has lived here for 30 years. Perhaps because it is a book that creates a long-lasting, incurable addiction.

The story is rather complex: Alec Leamas pretends to have been sacked acrimoniously from Her Majesty’s Circus (Le Carré refers to British Intelligence as “the Circus”) with the aim of getting himself recruited by the East German Secret Service in order to discredit their agent, the athletic, ice-cold blond, Hans-Dieter Mundt, a man “barren of humour or fantasy.” To lend his transformation credibility, Leamas drinks like a fish, comes to blows with a grocer and ends up in prison. During his descent into hell, he falls in (requited) love with a young, unsuspecting, communist librarian, Liz Gold.

After being recruited and brought across the curtain, Leamas is reunited with Liz in a secret tribunal of the German Democratic Republic (GDR). That’s when Leamas is unmasked as a British government spy, and Liz is accused of being his accomplice. The wall of accusations against Mundt collapses. Mundt’s deputy, Fiedler, who had believed Leamas, is discredited and sentenced to death. The dramatic twist comes in the novel’s final pages: Leamas realizes he has been betrayed by his superiors so as to save Mundt, who works for British Intelligence. Both Leamas and Liz (as well as Fiedler) are sacrificed in this cunning plan.

The reader embarking on the novel for a third time is perfectly acquainted with Alec Leamas, “a short man with iron-grey hair, and the physique of a swimmer,” and is thus free to concentrate on the story’s real victims: Fiedler and Liz. While Mundt makes a seamless transition from Nazi Germany bigwig to GDR bigwig, his deputy, Fiedler, returns from Canada because he believes in the “cause.” But Fiedler, who upholds the charge against Mundt, is not the German equivalent of Stalinist prosecutors in the show trials of the period between 1936 and 1938. Fiedler continues to feel compassion toward his fellow men. During the secret tribunal, in his capacity as interrogator, Fiedler realizes Liz is innocent and implores the tribunal president to let her go.

“Fiedler seemed to wake from the reverie into which he had sunk. ... His deep brown eyes rested on her for a moment, and he smiled very slightly, as if in recognition of her race. ... ‘She knows nothing,’ Fiedler said. ‘Leamas is right, let her go.’ His voice was tired.”

Fiedler recognizes one of his own in Liz, someone who has the courage to look power in the face and tell the truth. When Fiedler suggests freeing Liz, the president of the tribunal retorts: “You realize what you are saying?” Freeing an innocent person is unthinkable.

Both Liz and Fiedler, besides being communists, are Jews. In The Spy, the victims of Nazi insanity continue to be sacrificed in the name of superior strategies. Just as the allies refused to bomb the railway line leading to Auschwitz-Birkenau, so too do they still protect the Nazi Mundt, Le Carré seems to be telling us.

There are myriad reasons why The Spy continues to be a an important political book for our times. Even today, the ideals of democracy are being compromised by those who should defend them, and innocent people are incarcerated for telling the truth, in Moscow and Washington alike.

But there is a more personal reason why, year after year, I go back to reading John Le Carré. That house standing high at the edge of the earth, in Land’s End, is the home of Mr. and Mrs. Cornwell, the real name of the English author who I’ve known since 1996. Every year we come back here to enjoy a few hours as guests of the distinguished couple, who welcome our unlikely group with the warmth usually reserved for family. As I watch our son Sasha who, at the same pace as Naoki Higashida, jumps with joy in the garden of the home at the edge of the earth, I appear to see him, Fiedler and Liz emerge from their very different prisons and, albeit fleetingly, regain their freedom.

* Federico Varese is professor of criminology at the University of Oxford. Sasha Varese has autism and attends a special school near Oxford.

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