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‘A Legacy of Spies’ review: John le Carré makes a moving return to Cold War fiction

John le Carré, author of

John le Carré, author of "A Legacy of Spies" Photo Credit: Nadav Kandar

A LEGACY OF SPIES, by John le Carré. Viking, 264 pp., $28.

What exactly is John le Carré — author of the superb new novel “A Legacy of Spies” — better at than anyone else?

It’s not easy to say. He has written two perfect spy novels (“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), a slew of good ones and several bad ones. There are readers who would argue that peer Len Deighton’s record is better than that. Le Carré didn’t invent the genre; the credit there is blurry but generally parceled out in shares to W. Somerset Maugham, Eric Ambler and John Buchan, among others. Espionage since the fall of communism, less of a chess match than a bar brawl, hasn’t suited his strengths, pushing him toward politics and the short hop from there to sententiousness.

But those two perfect novels: They arrived just at the conclusion of half a century of global obliteration, and rarely have history and art found such solace in each other’s arms. Le Carré’s England is (like Tolkien’s, tellingly) a place of last feelings, weariness, misgiving, grief. His British spies are engaged in an immense and, as they very well know, probably foolish effort to hold their ambiguous moral high ground, with their tattered upper-class code directly thwarting them in the attempt. And meanwhile, their opponents passionately free of doubt.

To readers both then and now, this twilit milieu perfectly evokes the exhausted ambivalence of the Cold War, when it seemed certain the next obliteration was near. That’s why le Carré is so indisputably the transcendent spy novelist: He told an era its story better than anyone else.

And now he’s returned to that era. What an astounding joy le Carré’s “A Legacy of Spies” is — a clever, crystalline, moving voyage back to the settings of his early fiction, excellent on its own merits, stunning when taken in conjunction with that previous work.

“A Legacy of Spies” concerns Peter Guillam, a secondary character in the early le Carré canon, conducting various acts of tradecraft on behalf of “those grand masters of deception, George Smiley and his master, Control.” (If there is a defining figure in the author’s world, it’s the pensive, owlish Smiley, “Head of Covert for the ten coldest years of the Cold War.”)

Now, in the present day, Guillam is called back from his home in Brittany — he is half-French, part of his usefulness — to answer for actions some 50-odd years in the past, when he was part of a botched operation called Windfall.

“Sometimes I wonder whether it is possible to be born secret,” Guillam says, “in the way people are born rich, or tall, or musical.” He holds out against his exquisitely disrespectful young inquisitors for a while, but eventually begins to give way — two agents died in Windfall, and their children want answers and possibly restitution. Soon Guillam’s narrative shows us from a fascinating new angle the action of the early le Carré books, particularly “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” reuniting us with deeply familiar characters such as Jim Prideaux, Alec Leamas and Bill Haydon.

What’s most impressive is that “A Legacy of Spies” is in no sense a nostalgia act. It would be excusable — le Carré will be 86 soon — but the novel is brilliant, at once woven seamlessly into its predecessors and superlative as its own tale. Guillam emerges as a wary but emotional spy; he is not entirely sure he did the right things, but he is entirely sure he tried.

“We were not pitiless, Peter,” says Smiley, in a late, glorious cameo, after being absent for much of the book. “We were never pitiless. We had the larger pity. Arguably it was misplaced. Certainly it was futile. We know that now. We did not know it then.” Futile. Well, doubt is the only indispensable element of spy fiction — without it we have the genre’s dullard cousin, the spy thriller — and both Smiley and Guillam lean toward the same conclusion that le Carré did in a recent interview: “Spies did not win the Cold War. They made absolutely no difference in the long run.”

This searching lack of arrogance is what gives “A Legacy of Spies,” like its best forerunners in the author’s oeuvre, a very real moral greatness. And yet, strangely, there can be no doubt that the Cold War was some kind of breathtaking and categorical triumph, for the simplest of reasons: We did not have a nuclear war. It seems by no means clear that our own surreal historical moment can promise to achieve the same.

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