They say you can never cross the same river twice. That’s an aphorism tested to destruction by John le Carre in his latest, A legacy of Spies.
As he so often has, le Carre is returning to familiar characters in the novel, Guillam, Smiley, but there is more than that here. Rather than just characters, he is returning to the scene of a previous crime, the plot of his breakout success The spy who came in from the cold. He is re-imagining the events of that novel in the light of modern sensibilities, replaying them, recasting consequences. The question is, does that teach us anything new?
In A legacy, an aged Guillam (probably best not to think how old he must be), is roused from his retirement in France to help British intelligence (of course, no longer called the Circus). Two unexpected figures have emerged from the woodwork, the children (from previous relationships) of the doomed lovers from The spy who came in from the cold, Liz Gold and Alec Leamas. They have information about the underhand dealings by the secret service that lead to their parent’s deaths and are seeking retribution, both through compensation and through parliament. The spooks need Guillam’s memories, in order to protect themselves, but he wants more, to re-examine the case after so long and discover if he deserves a clear conscience.
As with so much of le Carre ‘s work, A legacy is about moral grey areas, about the truth of the idea that only aims matter, so means can go hang. Did Guillam give his life to a cause unworthy of sacrifice? Did his efforts, ultimately, achieve anything? Should the “modern” secret service still seek to protect and defend its old cloak and dagger activities, should it always engage in them?
Le Carre doesn’t have the monopoly on such questions, yet he still seems to do them better than anybody else, even after all these years. Modern pretenders to the crown, like Charles Cummings, however good they are, still seem somehow like pale imitations of the original. So the novel remains interesting throughout as the reader grapples with its moral complexities.
Typically of le Carre the writing is excellent, he is the only author who can make his characters going through documents sound interesting. It is, perhaps, not at the standard of his greatest works, like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, but then little is.
And yet… and yet… ultimately I was left disappointed by A legacy of spies. But why? As should be clear, in many ways it is excellent.
I think it’s because ultimately it feels tired, and, despite its best efforts, as if it has little new to say. I’m not sure, in the end, Guillam’s new thoughts are any more illuminating about the nature of duty and evil than The spy who came in from the cold was. In fact, I’m sure they are not. They lack the raw immediacy of that novel and the new work has nothing in it that touches the devastating ending of the original. You wish le Carre had left well enough alone, left Guillam in his comfortable retirement and Liz Gold and Alec Leamas in their unhappy graves behind the wall.
It all just feels unnecessary. The river is different, and there are new stories to be told.
John le Carré
John le Carré was born in 1931 and attended the universities of Bern and Oxford. He taught at Eton and served briefly in British Intelligence during the Cold War. For more than fifty years he has lived by his pen. He divides his time between London and Cornwall.
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Review by Joseph Surtees
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