The Looking Glass War
The Garden of the Finzi-Continis
The Second World War remains the overwhelming event of our time. It is possible that even now we have not yet really begun to face it. It is certain that we have not begun to overcome it. It is a trauma in the collective mind of Western society. So much was brought to an end by it; so much can never exist again as a result of it. And so much happened in it for the first time.
Two new novels undertake to deal with that cataclysm and certain of its implications. John le Carré’s The Looking Glass War is in some ways a sequel to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. It will in all likelihood be as successful. Although its action takes place today, during the Cold War, that earlier event hangs heavily over everything in the novel and determines the fate of everyone in it.
The characters in The Looking Glass War are members of a small, neglected, and all but defunct department of military intelligence in the British government. During the War they had been an enterprising, vital operation, training spies and agents and dropping them into occupied Europe to work at gathering information and performing sabotage. After the War the department was not dismantled, but was allowed, along with its chief officers, to go on existing in a minimal way, with a few agents in the field doing heaven knows what and not much of that. The advent of the Cold War does nothing to change the status of this organization; instead a whole series of new intelligence operations—British equivalents of the CIA—is brought into existence. These agencies develop techniques appropriate to operating the intelligence or spying side of the Cold War; meantime the small holdover outfit from World War II carries on in a trance, as if it were still 1943.
Then something unexpected occurs. One of this department’s agents stumbles across some information which strongly suggests that the Russians are handing over nuclear rockets to the East Germans and that launching implacements are being constructed in East Germany. The political implications of such a possibility are of course staggering, and the Ministry to which the department is attached authorizes an “overflight” over the indicated area. The department sends one of its members to collect the film, but he is murdered and the film is not recovered. Things are getting serious now, but not so serious that anything gets done correctly. The Ministry and the newer Cold War agencies, for obscure and dishonorable reasons of their own, choose not to take the matter out of the hands of the incompetent little department. Instead they allow them to re-activate themselves and mount an operation on their own. This delights the small bureaucrats (most of them Oxford men) who have been in mothballs for almost twenty years. The department begins to hum with activity; a Humber from the Ministry motor pool is put at their disposal; they take to sleeping at the office. And…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.