Good, bad and ugly: John le Carré’s keepers of the code – art and culture
While the moral ambiguity provided by John le Carré’s narratives elevated his spy novels from genre fiction to literary fiction, the nuts and bolts of how he went about doing this isn’t remarked upon enough. le Carré could have taken the easy way out and provided his readers a world of white and black, good and bad — the detective, after all, was the great restorer of the moral order. In his world of espionage, however, there are no clear poles. There is betrayal, but it isn’t always the bad guy who betrays; the ‘other’ is quite often, like ‘us’, and ideology is a slippery slope that leaves men disillusioned and alone.
1. George Smiley: We first encounter British intelligence officer George Smiley in le Carré’s debut 1961 novel, Call for the Dead — a frumpy, ill-dressed, academic and brilliant man, loyal to the last — in which he solves a murder, after retiring from the Circus. In fact, Smiley’s position in the Circus, as the MI-6 is referred to in the books, is sketchy: he conducts investigations to get to the heart of the matter, quite often after the waters have been muddied and agents have betrayed or been double-crossed, but he isn’t usually in the Circus while doing so.
2. Karla: The fictional head of le Carre’s KGB equivalent, Moscow Centre, Karla is the Soviet Union’s master spy. On his bidding, Gerald the mole infiltrates the highest echelons of the Circus in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy which cost Smiley and the Circus’ chief, Control, their jobs, sends Smiley’s right hand man, Peter Guillam to languish in administrative pen-pushing and lead to an international incident between Czechoslovakia and Great Britain in the novel. He is ruthless but he also has an Achilles’ Heel: his daughter, Tatiana, for whose treatment he ultimately defects to the West
3. Connie Sachs: A researcher at the Circus, legendary memory skills and sharp too, Sachs is the perfect foil to the “boys”. Not only does she recall every detail about the Soviet spies — of Alaksey Aleksandrovich Polyakov, the cultural attaché at the Soviet Embassy in London in Tinker Tailor, she recalls his height (5’10”), eye colour (“green”) and even his voice (“mellow”) — she also figures out betrayals long before the other agents have cottoned on. For instance, she deduces that Polyakov is a mole but that bit of wizardry leaves her without a job.
4. Sasha: Probably one of the most intricate characters written by le Carré, in Absolute Friends (2003), the “midget-sentry, vital even when is motionless” is the intellectual engine of a student commune in Berlin in 1969. Born to a Lutheran father, whom he hates, Sasha eventually joins the Stasi (the German Democratic Republic’s secret police) but he is disillusioned by the evils of communism. He tries to recruit his friend, Englishman Ted Mundy, but it is a “classic Cold War double-agent operation”. Rather than Mundy being an agent for East Germany, Sasha feeds the West information about his communist state. And then the two meet years later, after the American invasion of Iraq in 2003 and angered by “a renegade hyperpower that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment”, they come up with a new scheme to resist the neo imperialism of America. Sasha’s ideological arc is a le Carré triumph, as he hits despair and dismay at every turn.
5. Alec Leamas: Alec Leamas, immortalized on screen by Richard Burton in the 1965 adaptation of the novel, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold which had released two years previously, is the quintessential le Carre British agent. He’s a coat trailer, pretending to be a defector; he heads to East Germany to sow disinformation about Hans Dieter Mund, an intelligence officer. But Leamas doesn’t realize that in fact, Smiley, his boss, has sent him to East Germany to protect Mund who turns out to be a double agent working for the Circus. But what sets Leamas apart is not the fact that his loyalty remains unwavering despite what could be called a triple cross, but that in the end, he remains behind in East Germany, facing certain death, because of his lover.