Coming in from the Cold

Many of us live in and through institutions we find it hard to defend and can’t detach ourselves from. John le Carré was the great narrator of this condition.

The ethos of this historical condition, in Western terms, is a muted stoicism, and the spy novel, of all our narrative genres, might be our best guide to it. The Victorians had the novel of religious doubt; we have the spy novel, our story of forlorn service to a vanishing ideal. Instead of the church, we have the agency — that compromised, alluring, ridiculous, frightening, and still durable institution, dedicated to ideals that seem no longer viable. The agency may in fact be the villain in most postwar spy stories: it tries to eliminate Jason Bourne, it traduces its employees like Milo Weaver or David Morgan, it cannot be trusted by George Smiley. But one hates most where one has loved. The Service, be it MI6, CIA, or Mossad, is always being dismantled, always needs reconstructing, never seems healthy, never quite collapses — there’s a background sense of some constant partial recovery from a prior disaster. How can you continue to perform your duty to such a flawed thing, a thing whose damage is usually more evident than its healing?

This is not just the agency; it is the liberal order the agency has shielded. That has been John le Carré’s insight, and it is Smiley — forever the anti-Bond, the bespectacled small shabby master of counterintelligence — who acts as the last saint of the liberal West, who doubts his cause even as he pursues it. In the Karla trilogy he is both implacable and full of misgivings. He tries to snare his ideologically driven Soviet nemesis while having no strong counterideology to offer. Once, Smiley does trap Karla, in a Delhi interrogation room; but Karla cannot be turned. “Did he not believe, for example, that the political generality was meaningless?” he remembers asking his counterpart. “That only the particular in life had value for him now?” Le Carré’s thoughtful spies have a way of sounding like Niebuhr as rewritten by George Eliot, with the added quality of being unsure of their own position. “I behaved like a soft fool,” was Smiley’s verdict. “The very archetype of a flabby Western liberal. But I would rather be my kind of fool than his, for all that.”

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