Ruthless Is as Ruthless Does
WHAT IS IT REALLY LIKE to be a cold war spy? A deluge of fictional spy thrillers has done little to answer the question. Now along comes a one-time Eton schoolmaster, David Cornwell, 32, who some three years ago joined Her Majesty's Foreign Office "to get into the swim," and writing under an assumed name seems to have told all in one of the best spy stories ever written. Even if John le Carre's book isn't authentic, nobody except another certified spy can be sure; and it has the merit of sounding chillingly true. Following the grim trials of Le Carré's hero, a fiftyish cold war warrior named Alec Leamas, a reader is likely to break into a sweat and thank God he isn't in Leamas's shoes.
Leamas has killed many a time. He has just seen his entire network of East German informers systematically rubbed out by a Communist espionage team directed by a monster named Mundt. Then, back in London, Headquarters asks him to join an elaborate plot that he believes is aimed at killing Mundt.
But his intelligence organization openly wonders if Leamas is up to such a job. "Tell me," his boss asks him, "are you tired of spying? ... In our world we pass so quickly out of the register of hate or love—like certain sounds a dog can't hear. All that's left in the end is a kind of nausea; you never want to cause suffering again."
Sickness unto Death. A proud and laconic man, Leamas is outraged by such chatter. Gruffly he shakes off the question and takes the job. Dutifully he deteriorates in public: getting himself fired from his position in London, drinking heavily, finally brawling his way into a term in jail—all to give him proper credentials for becoming a defector to the East. In private, he begins creating the character he is about to play, a projection of his own personality that must, nevertheless, be proof against self-betrayal by a natural impulse, a personal habit. Grafting a novelist's perceptions to the taut skills of a suspense-tale writer, Le Carré slowly reveals that Leamas's superiors were right—he is literally sick to death of spying.
Shifting his story from London to Berlin and then deep into East Germany, Le Carré proves a deadpan master at invoking darkness at noon in the crocodile world of international espionage. Violence and the threat of violence are the least of what Leamas faces in the grillings he gets from Red agents; more exacting is the deeper psychological game of expected challenge and predictable response, in which the slightest false intonation of fact or voice can bring disaster.
A Fillip of Fable. A weirdly serpentine coil of plot suddenly reveals Leamas as an expendable actor in a play within a play whose final scene his superiors in London have cruelly chosen not to tell him. Beyond this, the book offers a small fillip of fable. Spies in the West, where individual life is held precious, vaguely hope that a just cause may absolve a man from responsibility for violence. But in the end Le Carré's secret agents, on both sides, are themselves as ruthless as the acts they perform. Few of them face the fact. In their world, Le Carré suggests, half of staying alive depends on staying numb.