John le Carré had, for all intents and purposes, “thrown in the towel” after 1990. This was the year when his (supposed) last George Smiley book, The Secret Pilgrim, came out. It was an apt (presumed) coda for someone of le Carré’s distinctive genre predilection to cease releasing new work about this particular spy. After all, these novels were rooted in the espionage category that came to be a staple of the Cold War era… and the Cold War effectively ended as the 90s dawned (hence, the spread of capitalism in former communist countries by way of sticking a McDonald’s flag in them). Of course, writers can never really “retire” a character (a.k.a. a philosophical mouthpiece) that’s within them, as they’re bound to be pulled back toward the healing properties of self-expression through this medium at some point. Feelings being what they are–which is to say, irrepressible–must get out eventually. And for this Briton, born David John Moore Cornwell in the Dorset Coast town of Poole, those feelings were, like most people with any sense, that Brexit is just about the worst political “strategy” of the twenty-first century, maybe even of all-time. At least in terms of modern European history.
Thus was born his 2017 Smiley-related novel, A Legacy of Spies. Even the presence of the word “legacy” denotes a certain questioning of what Britain might hope its own will be to those generations–both “British” and “European” (since the two separately classed identifiers are now deemed essential)–who suffer later on as a result of this decision. Designed as both prequel and sequel to his most famous work, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, the primary character is Peter Guillam, a sort of Watson figure (except slightly less of a bitch) to George Smiley’s Sherlock Holmes. As a half-French, half-English bloke, he is the ideal character through which to filter the lens of Brexit implications. After all, he’s lived in both realms of European and English consciousness, the former apparently threatening what it means to be the latter at an untenable level for the Brits. Now living in Brittany (appropriately “Bretagne” in French–as in “Grande-Bretagne”), he has had time to reflect upon his employment for The Circus (le Carré’s euphemism for MI6). Having seen the inner workings of the organization through many political shakeups and leaders, himself being on the administrative side of “spy work,” he can’t, based on the present state of things, fathom the reasons for it all.
When he and Smiley, for whom he has remained a devoted subject, finally encounter one another toward the end of the book, it is Guillam who asks if what they did “in the shadows,” if you will, for all those years was really worth it. And if it was, who was it actually for? England? That’s certainly the Bond rhetoric, filled with such propaganda most overtly present in any pre-Daniel Craig movie. Namely GoldenEye, when Alec Trevelyan (Sean Bean) asks Bond (Pierce Brosnan) in the first scene, “For England, James?” and he replies stoically, “For England.”
It seemed, indeed, there was a time, most particularly during the Cold War (and, one supposes, throughout the country’s subjugating and colonizing history), that a man could justify doing just about any loathsome act for the greater good of “Grand Britannia.” It would appear, even au présent, despite knowing better, that’s still the case. At least for those persisting in pushing Brexit through. Not admitting, before it really is the point of no return (which would be January 1, 2021–unless, of course, there’s another miraculous extension), that anyone supporting this is patently wrong and that it is not, after everything, too late to turn the ship around (if one will pardon the colonizing metaphor).
Alas, British pride being what it is, it looks as though the Tories would prefer to keep demanding extensions ad infinitum rather than simply saying, “You know what, we’ve changed our minds. Let us stay in the EU. And to show you how much we realize the extent of this cock-up, we’ll even actually change our currency to the euro in true solidarity.” This, to be sure, is a fantasy on par with Trump ever admitting he lost the election.
With regard to British cock-ups, of which there is no shortage, Alec Leamas’ narrative also plays heavily into A Legacy of Spies. For it is his son, Christoph, who attempts to sue the British government on his father’s behalf for wrongful death. This against the backdrop of Guillam’s own memories of Leamas, and how the two did all they could to save fellow operative Karl Riemek, who provided integral intelligence to MI6 from his perch in East Berlin. When Guillam at last tracks down Smiley and inquires if all the dubious things they did were, in fact, “for England,” Smiley, now sequestered in Freiburg, Germany (an appropriate medieval setting for a man such as himself), responds, “There was a time, of course there was. But whose England? Which England? England all alone, a citizen of nowhere?” That last phrase being an overt nod to former PM Theresa May, herself compared to Hitler for that line of thinking.
Smiley continues, “I’m a European, Peter. If I had a mission–if I was ever aware of one beyond our business with the enemy, it was to Europe. If I was heartless, I was heartless for Europe. If I had an unattainable ideal, it was of leading Europe out of her darkness towards a new age of reason. I have it still.” This repetition and reiteration of Europe, not England, as the “entity” he did it all for is an overt machination on le Carré’s part–himself a Brit who gravitated toward a French nom de plume (and no, just because the term is “nom de plume” does not mean the name actually has to be French). A Brit who lived through so many sea changes on the island, only to be most shocked of all by this most recent one–the final piece of British history he fittingly couldn’t live long enough to see through all the way.
As le Carré watched the nationalistic bombast of 2016 up to now unfold, his sentiments, as funneled through his most famous characters, are key to understanding that all this jingoism we’ve been conditioned to “feel” (with Britain being one of the greatest offenders of that thanks to deep-seated roots in imperialism) has not been our salvation, but the very source of our division and demise. He reacted so aversely to it that he found it within himself to release one final novel in 2019, called Agent Running in the Field. More unabashed in being his “Brexit novel” than A Legacy of Spies, it is still a variation on that theme explored in conversation by Smiley and Guillam. More to the point, “Both of them were looking at Britain from outside. Both of them had given an enormous chunk of their lives to spying for the cause. Now they’re wondering in that book–and indeed in the present book the protagonists are wondering–whether they actually gave their lives for the right cause, whether the cause exists anymore.”
Speaking of fractured “pride” for England, le Carré stated of his seminal character, “Smiley, who has spent his life defending the flag in one way or another, feels alienated from it, feels a stranger in his own country, and that’s why we find him and indeed leave him in a foreign place.” le Carré, on the other hand, remained, until his last breath, on British soil. British soil still technically part of the European Union at the time of his death. One imagines he preferred to leave that way, rather than whatever Thatcherist (on steroids) future lies ahead for Britain. One in which its inevitable revolving door of equally bumbling and fumbling politicians will continue to make promises about Making England Great Again.
To this end, it is as le Carré declared (before summarily throwing up a peace sign), “What really scares me about nostalgia is that it’s become a political weapon. Politicians are creating a nostalgia for an England that never existed, and selling it, really, as something we could return to.” If that’s the case, the Brits ought to be reminded that there is no “New World” to flee to as they once did during their “glory days.”