Eiland Center Library Book Blog #6

Sixth edition of Jim Hanscom’s Book Blogs for Readers – John LeCarré

It has been a real pleasure working with Jim over the past year or so to promote his Blog for our readers here at Sunnyside. Do not fear – he will continue in one way or another with “Sunnyside Libraries” and the new book groups. He always has a story to tell, and he tells them well. So, I invite you to follow his musings and sage advice on what to read! Thank you, Jim for working with the EC Library - Pat Harkins


John LeCarré

This reader was well into Silverview when familiarity nagged, and soon I was digging out an ancient copy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and prying out the connection. Structurally, at least, the two books were eggs from the same nest of John LeCarré, although one is a passing shadow of the other. Tinker, Tailor was a tour de force, an enigma filled with endless layers of intrigue wrapped in an elaborate labyrinth requiring the reader to turn back repeatedly to refresh his presence. It created a special subgenre and defined a whole era of Cold War spy craft just as Charles Dickens once captured the poor of London. After a reading, one seldom passed a white workmen’s van on the street again without wondering what was afoot. To move from Tinker, Tailor to Silverview is like going from Gone with the Wind to Little House on the Prairie. It is spy craft in miniature although many touches are the same.

John LeCarré is gone now, and Silverview is his exit book, released posthumously. It is a well-written yarn with suitable twist and turns, but no real suspense as to whodunit or even whodunwhat. The story fulfills organizational retribution and a dying wife’s revenge, with a main character motivated by contempt for modern politics and a search for a lady love. He may have started out as an idealogue, and still be susceptible, but—Cherchez La Femme. A lady we never meet. He is well-grounded in the rules of spy craft but has given up spying aimed at satisfying national aspirations.

Mr. LeCarré set the bar for the subgenre with Tinker, Tailor some years back, a masterful treatise of a search for a mole mirroring the real-life world of Kim Philby, the rogue who once headed British counterintelligence while working for the Soviets. Was there ever a time like the Fifties/Sixties when the Cold War produced such a rich lineup of spies? Much of that is coming out now with the opening of various archives.

In Silverview, LeCarré proudly presents the end of all that. At least for Britain and the “Circus” that LeCarré once served and recreated on paper. The world weariness of spying has shown up in other of his novels—he wrote twenty-six in all—following the wind-down of the Cold War but the George Smiley-Karla competition represented the crown jewels of his efforts. It has been suggested that LeCarré himself was a prime victim of the end of the Cold War, and his enthusiasm for literary combat with the evil Karla definitely slowed.

In Silverview, the burden of protecting British intelligence has passed from the inimitable Smiley, one of the great creations of literature, in favor of Proctor as the witchfinder in chief. Both are burdened with unfaithful wives, but Smiley’s is integral to his search and the finding of the mole. Edward Avon is no mole with a grand mission but becomes a person of interest and then a man on the run. The reader is shared the secret that something is amiss when two computers go missing from a bookstore, an event recognized by Edward as hearing one’s own death sentence. A dying wife buys some time, and the ending is delicious.

LeCarré gives himself away in a scene with Proctor interviewing two retired intelligence workers, man, and wife, who worked previously with Edward during the Balkans War that followed the split up of Yugoslavia. One agent has this to say:       “The thing is, old boy…we didn’t do much to alter the course of history, did we? As one old spy to another, I reckon I’d have been of more use running a boy’s club…”

On that score, we might interpose the leaking of the atomic bomb secrets to the Russians by Klaus Fuchs, and the testimony of one Oleg Gordievsky, a real-life senior KGB agent who jumped the fence to become a leading spy for the British in the ’80’s. Andropov ran Russia, was hardly used to the routine libels of American political rhetoric, and became convinced that the United States was going to engage in a first strike, based on the “evil empire” speeches of Ronald Reagan, the Great Communicator.   According to Ben Macintyre’s take in The Traitor and The Spy, well worth your time, Andropov was itching for his own first strike. Gordievsky advised the Americans to cool the rhetoric, and they did, and the moment passed. Whew.

In current events, a federal jury recently convicted a Chinese spy boss of espionage earlier this month in what could be “a seminal moment for the United States, as it works to combat a problem that has the FBI opening a new counterintelligence case into China every 12 hours. Yanjun Xu used various aliases to go after a slew of company secrets in the aviation field and was so convinced of the reliability of the GE official he was interviewing that he ignored a cutout and showed up for a rendezvous in Belgium. He was caught red-handed. In an age of advanced electronic technology, one could speculate that the activity has grown exponentially, already showing up in U. S. Presidential elections. If only the Internet had an unfaithful wife.

And just the other day: Suspected Russian FSB Agent Found Dead in Front of Berlin Embassy --   A Russian diplomat suspected of being an undercover agent of the Federal Security Service (FSB) was found dead in front of the Russian Embassy in Berlin last month, German media have reported. Berlin police discovered the lifeless body on the sidewalk in front of the embassy building on the morning of October 19, Der Spiegel reported on November 5.

Oh, what an opportunity for LeCarré! Johnny, we hardly knew you.

Jim Hanscom