The Exfiltration of Tulip, and other matters….

October 20, 2017 at 2:43 pm (Book review, books, Crime)

Exfiltration operation: ‘A clandestine rescue operation designed to bring a defector, refugee, or an operative and his or her family out of harm’s way’
[Language of Espionage, courtesy of The International Spy Museum]

At any rate, here we are, back in familiar Le Carre country. A double agent, code name Tulip, must be extricated from East Berlin and brought to England, where she will (presumably) be safe. The operation is overseen by Peter Guillam, agent of the British Secret Service. Tulip is not the easiest baggage to transport. She’s been forcibly parted from her son Gustav. pines for him constantly, and repeatedly demands to know when she will be reunited with him. A delicate, difficult situation.

It’s a strange, almost hallucinatory experience, being escorted by the Master of espionage fiction back into the Cold that he knows so well. As I read, I could almost feel its icy coils tightening. To say that this novel is atmospheric is to greatly understate the case.

The exfiltration provides the scaffolding upon which the plot is built. Myriad other things are going on at the same time. As is usual with Le Carre, the characters are numerous. They kept fading on and out; I admit that at times, I had trouble keeping track of them. A good number of them are artifacts from previous works. The most noteworthy of these is, of course, George Smiley.

For me, as I suspect for many others of my generation, the image of George Smiley is forever fixed as Alec Guinness, who portrayed the character for BBC-TV in 1979 and again in 1982.

Sir Alec Guinness as George Smiley. His was the face I saw throughout my reading of A Legacy of Spies.

The characters in this story indulge in the full panoply of spy behavior: they lie, prevaricate, evade, deceive, and worst of all, betray. Not that they derive any joy from these actions. Rather, they seem depressed, cynical, and thoroughly disillusioned. The question arises: Why would anyone choose to live like this? They don’t even seem to  be especially patriotic, and that may be the biggest puzzle of all.

Every once in a while, the prevailing gloom is relieved by a rare glimpse of goodness, like this:

Some faces, try as  they may, cannot conceal the good heart of  their owners, and Riemeck’s is such a face. He is balding, bespectacled – and sweet. The word is simply not to be denied. Never mind the medic’s studious frown: humanity breathes out of  him.

Sweetness! Imagine…(The combination of understated eloquence and precision that we know from previous books is present here as well.)

It must be stressed that Smiley is not the main character in this novel. Rather, he hovers like a ghost in the background throughout most of the narrative. The first work by Le Carre that I ever read was Smiley’s People, the third and final installment in the ‘Karla Trilogy.’ Not the best place to start, and so it proved. I had never in my life  been so completely flummoxed by a work of fiction (or nonfiction, for that matter). Upon completing the laborious  task of reading this book, all I could think was, “What was that??” It was 1980, and at that time, I had no background in the reading of either espionage fiction or mysteries. Thus my bewilderment may be more easily understood.

I already knew from the reviews I’d read that Alec Leamas and Liz Gold, main characters in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, reappear in this novel. I’ve never read The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, although I’ve seen the film several times. It is superb; it could hardly have been otherwise with stars like Richard Burton, Claire Bloom, and Oskar Werner, directed by Martin Ritt.

I’m not sure what the experience of reading this novel would be like today. (I do know that that the AMC network and the BBC are currently at work on a miniseries version, to be broadcast some time next year.) Alec Leamas is a notable but secondary character in A Legacy of Spies, only emerging as primary near the end of the novel. Liz Gold’s presence is even more fleeting.

And Peter Guillam, whose hard work and diligence facilitated Tulip’s exfiltration? He’s as conflicted a character as you’d expect him to be. One minute he’s on an outrage-fueled quest for justice; the next, he’s desperate to save his own skin and to Hell with everything  and everyone else. It’s this mixture of motives, this interweaving of truth and subterfuge, that is so mesmerizing, exasperating, and unnerving.

What a novel! I dreaded picking it up, then could not put it down. Le Carre, conjuror and artificer,  has done it again.

Photo by Nadav Kander

 

1 Comment

  1. Jose Ignacio said,

    A book I’m very much looking forward to. Thanks for your reminder!

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