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Distortion and Stereotypes in Le Carré’s “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold”

[As always—spoilers]

It’s been quite some time since I’ve read past midnight, but I had to see how John Le Carré’s novel, “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” ended. It was published in 1963, but I found it to be surprisingly relevant in 2017. One of things things that I admire about Le Carré’s writing is that he is not wishy-washy, trying to please everyone. There’s a bite to both the words and the plot.

Le Carre says of his own book in the intro called Fifty Years Later:

The novel’s merit, then—or its offense, depending on where you stood—was not that it was authentic, but that it was credible. The bad dream turned out to be one that a lot of people in the world were sharing, since it asked the same old questions that we are asking ourselves fifty years later: how far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?(xiv)

He also points out that the negative parts of the spies’ culture were a reflection of the problems in the larger culture.  The plot of the book explores how easy it becomes to exploit the individual in the service of some “greater good.”  The sense of impending tragedy is palpable and grows throughout the plot. The pacing of the book is excellent. Leamas, the spy, has to give up much of his individuality and acts as a tool for his handlers to gain ground in East Germany. He willingly makes this sacrifice of himself.  Another character isn’t a willing participant in the scheme.

However, the thread that I found the most relevant to our current politics was the section where Liz Gold, a U.K. Citizen and a member of the communist party, is brought to East Germany before the wall came down. When she interacts with the people there, she realizes some of the distorted beliefs that they had about the British. For example, they informed Liz that the working class was treated horribly in the U.K. In one scene, after Liz has been involved in something disturbing and exhausting, she doesn’t feel like eating the food offered to her. The wardress and she exchange:

‘Why don’t you eat?’ the woman asked again. ‘It’s all over now.’ She said this without compassion, as if the girl were a fool not to eat when the food was there.

‘I’m not hungry.’

The wardress shrugged: ‘You may have a long journey,’ she observed, ‘and not much at the other end.’

‘What do you mean?’

‘The workers are starving in England,’ she declared complacently. “The capitalists let them starve.’

Liz thought of saying something but there seemed no point (204).

It didn’t occur to them to ask Liz what her experience was as a citizen of the place, albeit of member of the Communist party there, because they already “knew” the answer.  Certainly, there were hungry people in that era as there are now, but most of them were comfortably fed, as demonstrated in an early scene, in which Liz is generous with another character, buying him a variety of food. Yet, Liz was also mistaken in her beliefs about what Communism was like. Le Carré was likely speaking to governmental propaganda.

In many ways, when compared to when this book was written, we have more exposure now to what other people’s lives are like in other places.  On the other hand, there are still distorted and stereotypical views.  Even within a country, people of different categories and political beliefs may not have exposure to how other people actually live or what they believe.

And yet, Le Carré also shows how both governments shared similarities in the prices they were willing to pay for their ideologies, despite having different ideologies. Both were willing to sacrifice the individual to win the “game.”

I’d highly recommend reading The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. It’s an excellent spy novel that is also thought-provoking.

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