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Defector Reads A Book

Psst! Let’s Talk About ‘The Spy Who Came In From The Cold’

Cover image: Penguin

Welcome back to Defector Reads A Book! Our December DRAB selection was John le Carré's The Spy Who Came In From The Coldwhich the Defector book sickos have read and discussed. We’ll be down in the comments to chat with you as soon as you’re done reading

Barry Petchesky: Brrrr, it’s cold out there! Before we actually dive into the story, should we get out of the way all some gushing on how much we love it? Because I love it so much.

Maitreyi Anantharaman: I adored it. Possibly the best reading experience I’ve had in years. So brisk and easy to get lost in that I think I finished it at around 3 in the morning.

BP: I read it in one night! Just a perfect puzzle box of a plot, without ever being too complex to follow. I feel like every story with a twist aims for that thing where it reads completely differently and yet just as solidly the second time around, but to actually achieve that is incredible. Maitreyi, I believe you’re the only one of us reading this for the first time. Do you feel like you want to go back and read it again immediately, with your new knowledge?

MA: Oh, maybe. I’m curious about that—what do you think you got out of it the second time?

BP: I saw everything in a totally new light, even seemingly insignificant things. The familiar face at the job office, the visit from Smiley to Liz, even the increasingly personable chatter between Leamas and Fiedler, which now becomes one man betraying another that he’s coming to like, without even knowing he’s doing it. All of it takes on this tragic new tone in light of what we know.

Albert Burneko: By the second time I read it, I’d read Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the first time, so to be honest a lot of the George Smiley stuff made a lot more sense on the second reading. The first time through, never having read any Smiley books before, I was like, “Who is this shlubby guy, am I supposed to know who this is,” so on the second reading it was nice to be like, oh hey, it’s my pal George, the sad-sack spymaster. I know him.

MA: After I finished, I had to chuckle at my copy calling this “a George Smiley novel” on the cover. While you’re reading, it seems like a departure from Smiley’s whole story, but no, this is a George Smiley novel, this is a George Smiley plot, only our poor protagonist doesn’t know it. 

AB: Not to go too far afield, but man it’s really something to read Tinker with this book in mind. It’s maybe a little harder to buy George’s sad-sack routine once you know he’s capable of a plot as downright Satanic as the one from this book.

I think a thing a lot of twist-ending stories strain for and can’t quite nail, but that this book aces, is completely earning the twist. Like even the fact of it being a twist, in this story’s case, seems like it winds up being rooted in the characters and their motivations: Leamas could have seen what was coming, if he hadn’t been so desperate to get what he felt he needed to get out of the plot he thought he was involved in. That’s part of what makes the ending so totally devastating, to me.

BP: I’d argue that what makes it devastating is that Leamas could not have seen it coming, because of who he was and where he was in his life, and specifically, the Circus would not have enacted the whole operation without knowing what he’d do. He never had a chance. And the cynicism of that truth is what made the read so bleak in retrospect.

AB: OK, I think that may actually be a sharper and righter way of saying what I’m fumbling at, which is that a character as cynical and wised-up as Leamas thinks of himself as being, and hates himself for being, might have seen the angle he misses. He sort of hates himself for his moral exhaustion and even he isn’t cynical or nihilistic enough to imagine the last swerve of the story. What blinds him to it is exactly what makes him the right guy for the job in the eyes of the Circus: He still believes it’s possible to wring some personal redemption out of his failure at the beginning of the book.

BP: Just total desperation. And Circus uses that against him. Control tells him, “One can’t be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold … I want you to stay out in the cold a little longer.” Did Alec Leamas come in from the cold? The title would indicate so. But at what moment?

MA: He does. It’s the last thing he does in his whole life. He climbs back down the wall to be with Liz. He comes out of the cold and chooses companionship, even though it isn't an actual possibility available to him at this point.

AB: Yyyyyyeah. The Circus seems to use the phrase to mean, like, leaving behind all the double- and triple-covers and returning to humanity, right? Seems like the thing Leamas realizes at the top of the wall is that the absolute only human choice left to him is to come down and be with Liz. That’s so fucking bleak and sad! I love it.

BP: We’re all in agreement. That moment, up on the wall, is when he realizes that he can no longer go on living knowing what he and his work have done to actual people. It’s something he started to realize on his all-night walk of Berlin after the opening chapter, I suspect. And he saw in this operation perhaps some redemption, but mostly he believed that no one innocent could get hurt by it. But now he’s realized that the spy game doesn’t offer that option, under any circumstances.

How about the book’s closing lines, Leamas having a vision of the trucks crushing the tiny car filled with children, recalling an earlier premonition of his? The trucks are the big Cold War powers and the children the simple, unsuspecting people caught in the middle.

MA: The ending made me flip back to the chapter that memory of the children in the backseat is introduced and its second sentence is this: “It is said that men condemned to death are subject to sudden moments of elation; as if, like moths in the fire, their destruction were coincidental with attainment.” I imagine that's the kind of thing that really catches your eye on a second read. So telling!

BP: Yeah. So much turns out to be teased or foreshadowed. Reading this for the second time also made me think about that old adage which says that suspense is either when the reader knows something the characters don’t, or the characters know something the reader doesn’t. But here, the biggest thrills come from the things neither we nor Leamas know! That’s a difficult thing to pull off, and le Carré does it, I think, by giving just enough that both we and he think we know what’s going on.

MA: I’d like to talk about that tension in the writing, or the feeling that you have as a first-time reader, at least, that you might always be playing catch-up, that you’re not quite in the loop. 

BP: Were you trying to work out what was going to happen next—did you think this was a puzzle meant to be solved?—or were you just happy to be along for the ride?

MA: I’m not sure it was one or the other. I don’t like treating books as if they’re tasks, but also I can’t help that I am so brilliant and suspected it all along. 

AB: Heh, mostly I was trying to figure out what had just happened. I’m not a very sharp reader! But I do feel like that sense of strandedness ends up serving the story really well in the end: The grand reveal isn’t of a plot a whole lot grander or more ingenious than the one Leamas thought he was involved in, but rather of one a whole lot more shameful and bleak. So the story ends up resolving on a sort of moral revelation, rather than a mechanical one.

BP: I do think part of the charm of le Carré is that he doesn’t hold your hand. He drops in all this jargon and all these names you don’t recognize and you’re just supposed to vibe with it. But that also helps with the realism. As does, uh, the bleakness.

MA: Yes! Control offers some advice to Leamas before sending him off, and I think it works as a writing credo, too. “Don’t give it to them all at once, make them work for it. Confuse them with detail, leave things out, go back on your tracks.”

AB: “Confuse them with detail” was one of my favorite bits in the entire book. All the stuff of Leamas figuring out how to comport himself in interrogations based on what the interrogators would expect someone like him to expect them to expect. So fun.

BP: He was so fully in control of himself and his words and actions at all times … except his brief fling with Liz. Let’s talk Liz. Is she a fully fleshed-out character, or is she just a plot point?

AB: Her affection for Leamas is really the one part of the book that doesn’t feel fully worked-out, for me. It feels a bit like le Carré just kind of banking on a male reader’s agreeing that women be crazy. But I also sort of appreciate that Liz, as the one normal person in the story, is a little bit more thinly sketched than the spies, like it sort of grants her the dignity of just being a normal pud of a person and makes her dragooning into all of this shit feel as unfair as it is.

MA: The Liz character worked for me! I don’t think she was written insubstantially. She has these politics, a sense of humor; she feels this palpable heartbreak when only seven people show up to her meeting. Something I wonder, though, is whether she still loves Leamas in the moments between the car ride and her death. Do you think Leamas’s indifference to Fiedler’s well-being might have changed the way Liz saw him?  

BP: Absolutely. Even as late as her incarceration she had been all, If only Alec had told me what to say. But then in the car she learns that he’s not some moral lodestone. And we as readers get to see Leamas try to convince someone—and himself—of the practical necessity of amorality. I think it rings as hollowly to our ears as it does to his own, and to hers. Liz’s journey through the book could be seen as the inexorable stripping of her ideals, one by one. Her belief in Leamas is the last to go. He knows it, and that’s why he makes the final choice that he does. 

AB: The bit when Leamas is explaining to her that even if she hadn’t fallen in love with him, the Circus would still have created the paper-trail of an affair and used her willingness to come over the wall to discredit him, is maybe the darkest part of the whole book on the second read-through? Because on the second read-through you know she’s going to die; she might have been brought over there to die for this guy even if she’d never fallen in love with him! They would have framed her as his lover and sent her to her death … to protect a Nazi!

BP: And yet we as readers are encouraged to side with a notoriously brutal GDR spymaster. Without realizing quite when it happens, we’re rooting for Fiedler to win this power struggle to run what are ostensibly the bad guys. Convincing a reader to sympathize with Fiedler is a neat trick, and it was jarring moment when I realized that it really wasn’t much different from me sympathizing with the Circus’s aims. Were you rooting for Fiedler to win his tribunal showdown with the simple country lawyer representing Mundt?

AB: Well, as a Communist … (just kidding). But yeah! I mean, even now I still have the stupid idea that the guy who appears to be a sincere true-believer in the justness of the system he sees himself as protecting should triumph over Mundt, whom the story depicts as a Nazi who joined the Soviet side out of sheer pragmatism and does his job out of nothing more sincere than cruelty. Fiedler’s evident belief that he’s working in service of something other than this pointless self-perpetuating spy game makes him seem almost weirdly … decent? Or at least human? Compared to all of these other monsters.

MA: Some of the exchanges between Fiedler and Leamas made me laugh. I liked the dynamic of Fiedler asking, “So, what are your beliefs?” and Leamas just kind of being like, “What the fuck are you talking about.” 

BP: Fiedler and Liz are the only people in this entire book who believe in anything. Unless you count, at the very end, Leamas. And all three are killed for it. How does a book this bleak end up so enjoyable to read? Personally I think it’s always nice to have one’s depressing priors about the world confirmed.

AB: I think the book is also saved from leaving a bad taste by the cumulative disgust on le Carré’s part that comes through. He’s definitely not glamorizing this world. I think it’s important that the book never really shows any interest in the information these spies are winning from their efforts, beyond the identities of their counterparts: You never hear about, like, the secrets of nuclear fusion or whatever. They’re just chasing each other in a circle. It gives the whole thing an almost satirical edge.

MA: It’s in the writing and structure, the dance of it. Le Carré anticipates your thoughts and then scrambles stuff up, which is so delightful, to be respected and challenged that way as a reader. In Soviet Berlin, book reads you.

DRAB will be in the comments for the next couple of days to hear your thoughts and chat with you. If you missed out on this month’s book, don’t worry! January is a new month and we’ll announce our next pick soon.

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