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Novel | John le Carré: The Legacy of the Spies
John le Carré, 86-year-old old master of the espionage novel, has written one last great novel about the world to which he belonged for a while: that of the secret services in the Cold War between East and West. And of course, the figure who appeared in his literary debut, ›Shadows of Yesterday‹ (1961), should not be missing in this book, albeit not yet in the exposed position that she later occupied as a master spy at the center of eight other novels : George Smiley. Before he even appears on the last pages of the new book, however, a story is negotiated in which Smiley is merely referred to as Spiritus Rector was involved in the background. Of DIETMAR JACOBSEN
We are living in the time of committees of inquiry. Everything is put to the test, including what happened a long time ago. For example the death of two people on the Berlin Wall in the year it was built. Did the top British spy Alec Leamas and his girlfriend Liz Gold really have to die back then? Or are Leamas ‘son Christoph and Gold's daughter Karen right when decades later they ask the British secret service to clarify the fate of the two? In any case, the new generation of highly paid snoopers cannot afford negative propaganda.
And that's why she quotes a man to London who, as George Smiley's right-hand man, should know more about what happened then: Peter Guillam. But the ex-spy, who has been washed up with every secret service, knows exactly that it is less about clearing up historical facts than about making an example of a scapegoat: »Historical finger-pointing is the latest megatrend. Our new national sport [...] Who will atone for the sins of our fathers, even if they were not considered to be sins back then?«
»Historical finger-pointing is the latest megatrend«
For readers who grew up with the novels by John le Carré, something should ring when they experience how the savvy Guillam poses in suspense-charged and rhetorically brilliant interrogations of his past and the past of the British secret service and based on the skill in the novel pasted filing material opens the case again. The story of Leamas and Gold has been told before, in the book that made le Carré's global fame: ›The Spy Who Came Out of the Cold‹ (1963).
Even then, 54 years ago, the author did not sing praises to men who were entitled to every means to achieve their goals. It was part of the dirty business that morality and fairness were not important in the battle of the systems, and that occasionally one or two of your own playing pieces had to be sacrificed in order not to jeopardize victory. It was hardly questioned in public.
But times change. And when the communist world system began to collapse bit by bit on its own in the late 1980s, the Cold Warriors of yore suddenly found themselves confronted with the question of whether their contribution to the new world had actually been so significant that it all the victims - also and above all those in their own ranks - legitimized. It was Götterdämmerung on the banks of the Thames. A believable new beginning - after all, after the old enemies had disappeared, new ones appeared fairly quickly - first of all also a believable examination of the past and its relics.
Old spies and the new times
John le Carrés Peter Guillam is one such holdover from the century of antagonistic isms. As George Smiley's right-hand man, he was involved in all of his operations. Of course, he does not want to be made a scapegoat because he still believes that he has fought for good and justice in the world. And so the reader experiences a man with his back to the wall for almost the entire length of the novel. One that only moves when it has to move. One who only admits what, with the best will in the world, can no longer be denied.
Someone who pans around, fines and talks around the bush, while the files that he has to read to familiarize himself with the old days speak a completely different language. One that justifies the indictment of the descendants of the Cold War victims, which reads: "You are all sick, you spies. You are not the cure, you are the cursed disease. Idiots who play idiotic games and think they are the very brightest shitty smartass in the universe.«
›The Legacy of the Spies‹ ends with the appearance of the person for whom Peter Guillam was supposed to hold out his head. Because those who sit in judgment on the past do not dare to approach George Smiley himself. He could make too much public, which damages the reputation of the secret services. But after the end of the Cold War, Smiley became someone else too. He questioned his former role as one of the top pullers of a top secret authority and weighed the effort and results of the operations he planned and directed against each other. The bottom line is that it's sobering. »A good agent and an innocent woman for [to have sacrificed] a cause the world barely remembers«Is a debt that will haunt him forever.
And why is all this? »For world peace, whatever that is? [...] Or in the name of capitalism? God forbid. Christianity? God forbid. […] So for England? […] I am European, Peter. If I have had a mission, […] it was in Europe. [...] If I had an unattainable goal, it was to lead Europe out of the dark into a new age of reason. I still have that goal today.“A nice end in times of enormous challenges for the continent, of which Brexit is only one. And a final building block, perhaps not just for this book, but for an entire work that reflects the post-war era of the last century.
| DIETMAR JACOBSEN
John le Carré: The Legacy of the Spies
Translated from the English by Peter Torberg
Berlin: Ullstein Verlag 2017
317 pages, 24 euros
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