John le Carré redesigned the spy novel so it could be enjoyed by liberal anti-Communists. This was not an insignificant service. For liberal anti-Communists like a good spy story as much as anyone else does, and it would have been unfair to ask them to get through the cold war without the distraction of a few thrillers they could take pleasure in with an easy conscience.
Le Carré transformed the genre by writing quite pointedly against two of its most popular traditional elements: the jingoism of John Buchan’s spy stories and the machismo of Ian Fleming’s. Le Carré’s spies are patriotic almost entirely faute de mieux; their enthusiasm for the society they defend arises principally from their distaste for the alternative. His heroes rarely have occasion to demonstrate their skill with high-tech weaponry; they are never called upon to win large sums at baccarat; and his most successful creation, George Smiley, is a cuckold on a rather spectacular scale.
The Spy Who Came In From the Cold appeared in 1963, just two years after the Berlin Wall. Its genius was to conceive of the Wall not as separating the destinies of East and West but as yoking them together. Le Carré made the Wall a symbol of the incommensurability of ultimate ends, and therefore a perpetual reminder that the struggle between the two sides must be a war to the death. “We’re both really alike” is the book’s constant refrain—meaning that the defense of liberal democracy requires, in the end, the same duplicity, the same willingness to exploit the exploitable, the same blind gamble that your side is History’s side, as the defense of the “workers’ state.”
Still, le Carré was not a subscriber to what used to be called the doctrine of moral equivalence—the belief that an open society willing to use nuclear bombs has no claim to moral superiority over a closed society willing to use nuclear bombs. He (or his heroes) hated the selfish consumerism, the idiotic class invidiousness, the pathetic remnants of the imperialist mind-set, the craven Americanism—in short, the general illiberalism—of postwar British society. But they also knew that a decadent democracy is preferable to a ruthless authoritarian state. The Soviet Union in le Carré’s novels is unequivocally the enemy, and it must, though the game is possibly barely worth the candle, be thwarted. The question of belief scarcely enters into it. “Alec, what do you believe in?” the spy’s girlfriend asks him in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. “I believe an eleven bus will take me to Hammersmith,” he says. “I don’t believe it’s driven by Father Christmas.”
This is the voice of hard-boiled fiction, and The Spy Who Came In From the Cold is a spare, noir-ish exercise very much in the tradition of Hammett and Chandler, in whose stories the private eye’s contempt for his adversaries tends to be only slightly greater than his contempt for his clients. It was a form that, once devised, would have been easy to reproduce; but le Carré proceeded in another direction instead—backward, in effect, in the direction of Arthur Conan Doyle. He dropped the minimalism and went for atmosphere, and in the Sixties and Seventies produced a series of novels that for many readers achieve the same ripe impression of a complete make-believe world as the Sherlock Holmes books do: The Looking Glass War, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People.
The end of the cold war therefore (let me be the hundredth reviewer to say it) made a problem for le Carré. His formula called for two monolithic, cynical, self-aggrandizing establishments, one East, one West, between which the genuine individual, the person who has chosen to believe in something, is trapped and crushed. The bipolar world was an ideal setting for this kind of story. The New World Order—whatever it is: unipolar, multipolar, or every man for himself and God against all—is a lot less adaptable. But le Carré has tried anyway.
Our Game is the story of a former British intelligence agent, named Larry, who goes Ingush. The Ingush are neighbors of the Chechens, one of the ethnic peoples of the Caucasus region struggling to free themselves from the domination of the Russian federation (and from the predations of other ethnic peoples of the Caucasus region, such as the Ossetians and the Georgians, as well). In the current real-life fighting in Chechnya, the Ingush, though friendly to the Chechens, have so far played a conciliatory role. In le Carré’s story, though, they are in a separatist war with Russia.
Larry is a free-spirited radical intellectual from a proper middle-class family who made a perfect double agent for the British during the cold war because he could understand completely why anyone would, hate the British system—for its consumerism, its conformity, its “crawling adherence to America.” When he pretended to be a Soviet agent, he hardly needed to pretend. Now that the cold war is finished, Larry has been cashiered to an academic post in Bath. He stops being a spy, but he does not stop being a radical intellectual. He continues his friendship with one of his former KGB handlers, an Ingush named Checheyev; he becomes absorbed in the Ingush cause; and one day he goes AWOL from his university, arousing the interest of the local constabulary and the anxiety of British intelligence, since it is soon discovered that Larry and Checheyev have contrived, through phony bank transactions, to steal from the Russian government upward of thirty-seven million pounds. The book is essentially a search for Larry, beginning in a manor house in Somerset and ending, via a tour of the Moscow underworld, on a mountainside in Ingushetia.
Two devices are used to give this story some angles in which a moral might lodge. One is to make Larry the third party in a romantic triangle involving his former public school pal and case officer, Tim, and Tim’s brand-new and much younger girl-friend, Emma. Tim has taken advantage of the end of the cold war, and of his career as a spymaster, by retiring to a country estate which he has inherited along with a substantial amount of cash. There he assumes the role of village benefactor, squiring the elderly on sightseeing expeditions, sprucing up the local church, collecting antique barometers and the like, and manufacturing second-rate wine. Emma, a nubile composer of multicultural music, whom he showers with jewelry and other possessions to which she is indifferent, is his trophy mistress. The flamboyant Larry, now professing down the road in nearby Bath, intrudes himself into Tim’s idyll, with consequences that are entirely predictable. Thus the themes of ownership, loyalty, and secession get their microcosmic doubling.
The other device is to make Tim the book’s narrator, and to add the wrinkle that Tim believes he may possibly have murdered Larry during a wild midnight quarrel over Emma, and is therefore himself on the run from the same authorities who are searching for Larry (and who suspect Tim of being in on the phony bank scheme). This puts Tim where le Carré likes his people to be: out in the cold. And it encourages us to read Tim’s struggles with Larry as Tim’s struggles with himself. “Larry is my shadow,” as he puts it—his other half, the man of convictions he can’t make up his mind whether to join or destroy.
The Conradian undertone is hard to miss, and le Carré has, in fact, worked a few quiet allusions to Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim into his text. Tim, responsible and overcautious, makes a plausible enough Marlow, and the suspense in the story comes initially from the uncertainty whether the man he is searching for is Kurtz or Jim—whether Larry is a mad genius turned savage or the West’s last genuine romantic.
The answer turns out to be that he’s the West’s last genuine romantic, and the suspense wasn’t terribly convincing anyway. It’s clear from the start that Tim represents the post-Communist West, its head, now that the threat of sudden annihilation has passed, buried in its own backyard vineyard while the little people of the earth get trampled on. Larry may be a rash idealist, but next to the passive sensualist—next to the likes of Tim—the rash idealist is a hero and a saint. Le Carré has said as much in an op-ed piece written to accompany the novel, in which he condemns the West for ignoring the plight of the world’s Ingushetias; and though he is too clever a writer not to make the message a little more ambiguous in his novel, he doesn’t make it nearly ambiguous enough. Our Game is a good deal like le Carré’s other post-Soviet spy story, The Russia House: it’s an effort to re-create the cold war mise èn scène by showing the world to be a place where littleness is good, and goodness is forever the victim of power-for-its-own-sake.
Littleness is sometimes good, of course, and goodness is sometimes the victim of power-for-its-own-sake; and there might have been a way to make Larry’s story a persuasive illustration of this fact of life if Larry himself were not such a thoroughly unsympathetic character. We don’t share even Tim’s ambivalence about him: we simply wish him dead, and are disappointed whenever it appears that he might still be with us kicking somewhere. He is given to self-analysis of the most grating kind: “Our problem, Timbo, is my purblind, incurable, omnivorous innocence. I can’t leave life alone. I love it. Its fictions and its facts. I love everybody, all the time. Best of all I love whoever I was speaking to last.” We seem to be expected to find this sort of narcissistic bravado as irresistible as Tim does.
The other legs of the triangle are not much sturdier. Tim’s infatuation with the childlike Emma, and his prissy hedonism generally, has a vaguely Humbertish air about it; and since his belief in the suburban good life is so plainly hollow to begin with, his subsequent condition of unbelief seems hollow, too. Emma has the stock qualities of nearly all le Carré’s young women: she’s arty, negligent about the future, hopelessly vulnerable to the appeal of hopeless causes, and without a grain of sexual modesty. She keeps a diary in which she writes things like: “Every wrong lover, wrong step, my bad side and my good side, all my sides, are marching in the same direction for as long as I march with Larry…. When Larry says he doesn’t believe words, I don’t believe them either. Larry is action. Action is character. In music, in love, in life…”
Meanwhile, the man who doesn’t believe words is sending her letters that begin, for example: “Nietzsche said something frightfully stern about humour being an escape from serious thought, so I’ll bow to N and give you serious thought. I love you. The hearts, the laughs, the shoulder-to-shoulder, the pluck, the silences, every dimple and inlet, tuft, mole, freckle, nipple, and peerless plane. I love you until it comes out of my eyes,” and so on. There are times when this self-infatuated ménage recalls the unintentionally repellent threesome in le Carré’s single nonthriller, The Naive and Sentimental Lover; and those are not characters it is good to be reminded of.
Our Game is like The Russia House, too, in opening with a highly charged atmosphere of mystery and suspense—much of it generated by Tim’s coy narration, which makes secrets of facts Tim has no reason to conceal from us—and then more or less letting the threads drop in order to chase after its geopolitical theme. The first half of the novel has more twists than the story reasonably calls for, in other words, and the second half doesn’t have enough. It is as though le Carré was trying to write in two genres at once—as though he was reluctant to deprive his readers of the ambience of spies and tradecraft the readers expect, but became impatient with all the hocus-pocus. Nothing is made, for example, of Tim’s fear that he might have killed Larry, though it dominates the first half of the novel. The question of what really happened in their struggle is never resolved; the subject is simply abandoned.
Still, many of the literary elements for a successful Conradian story are here. There are a number of well-drawn Dickensian cameos; the dialogue (apart from Larry’s) is inventive and funny; Tim’s Humbertish qualities lend, when Tim is not required to be soberly introspective, a nice mordancy to the telling. And as always, when le Carré gives his attention to atmosphere, his world comes to life.
But you can’t aspire to Conrad and formulate foreign policy at the same time. Conrad, after all, was disenchanted with everything. He found the worm in every apple, and if one is going to allude to Lord Jim, it is worth remembering that even in tiny Patusan, resentment and the lust for power triumph over altruism in the end. The world since 1989 may have fractured into a thousand pieces, but they’re still all made from the same stuff. They’re just chips off the old blocs.