Thursday, February 21, 2008

the last book I read

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold by John le Carré.

Interesting things, pseudonyms. Just as William Henry Pratt decided that his fairly mundane given name didn't give off enough of an intense humming of evil for an actor in Hammer horror films, and hit upon the more suitable handle of Boris Karloff instead, evidently David Cornwell decided that his name was insufficiently enigmatic for a writer of twisty-turny spy thrillers and opted for something a little more exotically European-sounding instead. Or maybe it was just that since he was still gainfully employed by MI6 when he was writing his early novels it was deemed unwise to use his real name. Not that he would have been using his real name for his spying work, what with, you know, being a spy and all.

I read le Carré's later novel The Little Drummer Girl back when I was about 15 - my school friend Mungo was a big le Carré buff and I was keen to be seen to keep up. I have to say that I recollect very little about it other than a general sense of not really having any idea what was going on.

However, I enjoyed this greatly. You've got to come to an acceptance of your position in the grand scheme of things when reading a book like this, in the sense that there are the things that the protagonists know (or, at least, that the author chooses to allow you to know they know), and then there are the things you know that the protagonists don't, and then there are the things that the author knows that neither you nor the protagonists know. There's really no point in trying to constantly second-guess what the things in the last category are, because the author knows you'll be trying to do this, and so it won't be the things you're expecting. Clear?

A plot synopsis is a bit pointless for a book like this, and indeed counterproductive if the intention is to inspire people to read it. A very brief synopsis would go something like this: it's just after the Berlin Wall went up and weary fiftysomething British agent Alec Leamas is licking his wounds after the collapse of his Berlin spy-ring. Back in London his superiors persuade him into one last big job, the intention of which is to bring down an East German agent who has been responsible for the failure of many British intelligence missions (including the one Leamas was running). Or is it? Leamas plays along with the necessary subterfuges, pretends to defect, and gets picked up by the East Germans as planned. Thereafter things don't go quite according to plan. Or do they?

It's consciously gritty and downbeat throughout - the suspicion is that this is as a deliberate riposte to the James Bond novels; this one contains an awful lot of sitting around in dingy flats, or being driven around in cars to mysterious destinations, and precious little gunplay, sex or wisecrackery. Even Len Deighton's The Ipcress File and its successors featured a hero who cracked a few jokes and had a bit of a way with the ladies, not to mention some rather more implausible plot devices.

Just to echo my earlier post: The Spy Who Came In From The Cold was included in Time Magazine's list of the 100 best modern English-language novels back in 2005. My usual obsessive-compulsive instincts compel me to look at the complete list and calculate how many of them I've read. And the answer is, I think, 29.

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