“Intelligence work has one moral law – it is justified by results.”
Title: The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
Author: John le Carré
Publication details: New York: Penguin books, 2012. (First published 1963)
Ok, lots of people love this book over at ol’ Goodreads. It’s not that I don’t love it, rather…I don’t get it.
I feel kinda dumb saying it, but it’s true. I just didn’t get it. Not even in a philosophical “Oh, this book is too deep for me” way, I just didn’t really understand the epilogue of the mystery. I guess the author explained what was going on, but I just…didn’t…get it?
I actually feel really dumb right now.
There was a lot of double-agent shenanigans occurring, and I’m afraid I lost track of who’s who and whatnot.
Out of necessity, I had to read through the summary on Wikipedia to understand what was going on and where exactly I got lost. Let me narrate what I got from the story, bolding the parts where I started to get way in over my head:
Leamas is an american agent who’s had just enough of the espionage game. After seeing a fellow agent get killed at the East-West Germany border, he wants to throw in his coat for good. However, his spymaster, Control convinces Leamas to go undercover into East Germany to bust the Leader of the East German Secret Service, Mundt!
Over at East Germany, Leamas falls in love with a girl (who wasn’t supposed to be part of the plan, surprise, surprise), which ultimately causes him to lose his trial against Mundt. His friend, Fiedler, who was working with him against Mundt, is sentenced to be executed.
In the end, it turns out Mundt is actually a British double agent. Control told Leamas to stop Mundt, but actually set him up to fail, so that they could stop Fiedler from exposing Mundt as a British spy.
By using some evidence gathered from his relationship with Liz (Leamas told her some stuff which basically ruined his cover *facepalm*), Mundt made Leamas look like an unreliable character, and by association, Fiedler too. But actually it’s ok, because Mundt’s on Leamas’ side, right? Since they’re both British agents and Fiedler is the German agent.
Except it’s a little bit more complicated than that because Mundt is set up as some jew-hating, ex-Nazi while Fiedler is the idealistic, young chap who despite being on East Germany’s side, is still overall, good.
See, this is why I got so lost! The fact that Mundt was set up as so despicable, and that Leamas’ main task was to take down Mundt, made me keep believing that Mundt was the bad guy through it all. Even when the story told me, “No, Mundt is a double agent actually working for the British. He just needs to keep up the pretense of being a bad guy so that he doesn’t get exposed”, I still kept thinking, “Yep, he’s the bad guy!”
My mind was just so fixed on the notion that Mundt was the bad guy. Damn.
I’m flipping through the book now and found one paragraph where Leamas plainly tells Liz that Mundt is actually London’s man and Leamas was manipulated by his own spymaster to save Mundt’s ass, and I’m just thinking, “How did I miss that?”
Well, I didn’t actually miss it, I more just read through it but somehow refused to get it. …I’m slower than I think.
For some reason, my brain was set into a black-and-white morality mode while reading this book. Now I see that the British Service did something despicable to save their own hide, while sacrificing the life of a German spy who got to clever for his own good. I kept thinking that Leamas was the good guy, so the Brits were the good guys. No wonder he was so fed up of his job! Because his own morality was being continually tested.
So the real question was, “To what extent would you go to save your own hide at the expense of others?”
Then again, Mundt was in a really precarious position, he couldn’t really risk being exposed. It was him or Fiedler…and Leamas was just the pawn.
Liz did point out in the book that there was no way the British service could have known that she and Leamas would have fallen in love (as this was used as leverage against Leamas during the trial), and I concur. Leamas provided some reasoning for that, but still…there was no way they could know! Even if they supposed that they might shack up, they had to assume that Leamas would spill his beans to her and love her enough to tell the court everything in order to protect her. I guess they could deduce the outcome based on Leamas’ rather heart-of-gold morality, but…I don’t know, it seems like such a risk.
I also didn’t really get the ending, as I didn’t understand why Leamas would let himself die. Ok fine, Liz got shot, she’s dead, why does that make him just surrender to the gunfire as well? Did he really love her that much? Or was he also clouded with guilt from what happened to Fiedler? Or was he just sick of it all and wanted to end it?
I just didn’t understand. I feel like a little kid trying to read a book too deep for her to fully grasp. I don’t understand the motives…why didn’t he save himself? Why??
In conclusion, I liked the book, but on account of my own hard-set preconceived notions and reasoning before I went into it, I failed to understand the various motives of the characters and ended up going “Wait, what, why?” most of the time.
To put it simply: I didn’t get it.
Still, it’s a good book. I blame myself entirely for not getting it, not the book.