Le Carré’s New War

The Night Manager

by John le Carré
Knopf, 429 pp., $24.00

The end of the cold war is a hard bargain. Certainly it is an advantage to mankind that our chances of being vaporized into radioactive mist have been reduced considerably, and yet, on the debit side, we have lost one of the greatest characters in the history of the espionage novel, George Smiley: OBE, master of the Cambridge Circus, combatant of the Soviet spymaster Karla, and world-weary creation of John le Carré. For a half century Smiley made a career of the artful comeback. But unless le Carré enjoys the torture of geriatrics, we cannot reasonably expect him to prod his creation from retirement for yet another adventure. “It’s over, and so am I,” Smiley wistfully told a graduating class of spies in the 1990 valedictory novel, The Secret Pilgrim. “Time you rang down the curtain on yesterday’s cold warrior. And please don’t ask me back, ever again. The time needs new people. The worst thing you can do is imitate us.” We imagine our hero now slumped by the fire at his house on Bywater Street, poring once more over Goethe and Grimmelshausen, absently polishing his glasses with the fat end of his tie.

The Great Game was good sport—for the players as well as for us. Even before the Soviet empire collapsed in a heap, the inhabitants of le Carré’s novels wailed like Spanish widows whenever they were driven from the secret world. Spies who were shelved for reasons of age or scandal raged against the light of the common world and cried out for the murk of the shadows. They, like the readers for whom they performed, could hardly imagine a life without the cramped and somber universe of obscure victories and shaming defeats. For them, the world of cold war espionage was an extension of boarding school days, a realm of enforced intimacy, private language, and class distinctions. Who could face the tedium of retirement by the telly after the hale days of “honey pots,” “duckdives,” “water games,” “double-double games,” “reptile funds,” and “Moscow rules”? What pleasure was there in baby-sitting the neighbor’s brats when one has baby-sat a Czech spy? Connie Sachs, the revered analyst who had been known at the Circus as “Mother Russia,” was just one who positively wept over her banishment to civilian life. Forced out of the secret service in a time of constant scandal, she descended into drink and depression at her pet-infested cottage in Oxford. “I hate the real world, George,” Connie Sachs told Smiley. “I like the Circus and all my lovely boys.”

Now Götterdämmerung is past and the real world is all we have. It is all Connie Sachs has and it is all John le Carré has. The new complications are threatening and promise little entertainment. We have entered an era of Balkan chaos, fundamentalist terrorism, ecological apocalypse, international narco-business, runaway population growth, and runaway ignorance, and where is the genre fiction in all that? We may yet discover it …

This article is available to subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.