Friday, August 03, 2007

The man who came in from reading Fred Vargas

The Oz Mystery Readers group is discussing John Le Carré's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a classic espionage novel and an occasion for some lessons in history.

You know the history I mean, don't you? The history of the fictional spy, which meant, at that time, James Bond. Le Carré's protagonist, Alec Leamas, is an anti-Bond. His life, according to the article to which I link above, "is far from the glamour of James Bond's world: he has a love affair with a lonely, unpaid librarian, not with a fashion model."

Then there's that other history, that of the Cold War, of us vs. them, with its harsh symbol of division, the Berlin Wall. And us vs. them, Le Carré tells us, is decidedly not good vs. evil. It was probably easy to call the book a classic back in 1963, and the dust jacket of my handsome old hardback edition trots out a lineup of superstar blurbsters: Daphne du Maurier, Alec Waugh, J.B. Priestley and Graham Greene, the last of whom called the book "the best spy story I have ever read."

But that was then; this is now. How does the book's laying bare of the amorality of espionage hold up today? Pretty well, even when the prose seems tendentious by current standards:

"Ashe, Kiever, Peters; that was a progression on quality, in authority, which to Leamas was axiomatic of the hierarchy of an intelligence network. It was also, he suspected, a progression in ideology. Ashe the mercenary, Kiever the fellow traveler, and now Peters, for whom the ends and the means were identical."
I'll report back later on a bit of plot manipulation that just might be shocking or even offensive, depending on the next thirty or so pages. In the meantime, sit back and reflect on the vanished days of the rivalry between Russia and the West, that golden era of international spying.

Say, who was that Alexander Litvinenko guy, anyway?

© Peter Rozovsky 2007

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Blogger Dave Knadler said...

As you implied, nostalgia for Cold War skulduggery might be a little premature. That Russian stunt of sinking a flag below the ice of the North Pole does seem kind of Ian Fleming-esque.

I never read much LeCarre, but a friend recently sent me "Call For the Dead," a thin volume featuring George Smiley. Published in 1961. Hard to imagine Smiley and James Bond inhabiting the same fictional universe, but I guess they did.

August 03, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

One wonders what the Litvinenko case and, yes, that weirdness about claiming half the Arctic Ocean presage. I don't read many spy novels, so I don't know what the trend in espionage fiction has been since the end of the Soviet Union. But it's easy to imagine someone in a current spy novel referring back to the Cold War and remarking that the current tensions are just like the old ones, except that no one even makes any pretense about ideology this time.

Maybe recent spy writers have already made remarks to that effect. Anyone know of any who have?

August 03, 2007  
Blogger Uriah Robinson said...

With regard to the Litvinenko case I think there is much more to it than a simple Cold War assassination. Radioactive Polonium would not be my first choice as a weapon, but it did leave a convenient trail almost back to Mr Putin's office door.

August 04, 2007  
Blogger Peter Rozovsky said...

Another contemporary touch was those stories that Litvinenko had converted to Islam. What this has to do with the case, I have no idea, but a contemporary story about international intrigue somehow seems to be missing something if if it missing the word "Islam."

August 04, 2007  

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