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Smiley’s back with a heady cocktail

John le Carré has included the return of his best known hero in his latest novel

29 September, 2017 — By Gerald Isaaman

John le Carre

He calls it A Legacy of Spies. For aficionados of his many novels over more than half a century, it might have been called A Cocktail of John le Carré, a shake-up as he approaches his 86th birthday next month.

And one containing, of course, ripe and juicy fruit, fizz galore, enough to float on, and the perilous consequences of gulping down too much too quickly.

The important point is that Smiley is back. Yet you have to wait until almost the end for George to appear after a number those familiar spy characters. There is dumpy George, in red pullover and bright-yellow corduroys, in his Spartan bachelor flat.

The complex plot for Legacy takes us back to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, le Carré’s famed and life-changing 1963 drama. The deadly fate, too, of out-of-control field officer Alec Leamas and his Communist English girlfriend Liz Gold in attempting to escape from their own delu­sions in East Germany.

The joy for many, myself included, is le Carré’s quicksilver style in creating a character, his/her history, a place, a time, and evil events in his brush-stroke style that sets the tone, leaves you demanding more as you come under the spell of his mesmerising prose.

He uses words to express events and emotions – remember “mole” for an undercover agent? – with immaculate ease and phrases like “When the truth catches up with you, don’t be a hero, run” that leave you begging for more as he brilliantly draws analogies with past and current political disasters.

The maestro at work leaves you forever thirsty for more. And for those who don’t know it, all the places he writes about are accurate descriptions of the streets, towns, rivers and hills in his settings, this time revealing that the appropriately named Circus spy HQ is London’s Cambridge Circus, though not his own home in Gainsborough Gardens, Hampstead.

He has used old hacks like me to check whether his description of an avenue of trees on Hampstead Heath is correct and is angry when the disabled Polish colonel in Smiley’s People used his walking stick in the wrong hand when he was filmed for TV.
But then it is the detail in disgust, the naughty nuances that is imperative for spies.
He now recreates his real hatred of our native hypocrisy, his own bleak pessimism, undoubtedly born from his early frozen, loveless days growing up with his insatiably crooked father.

As to our madcap world today, he complains that “we decent people are all mystified and joined by fear at the moment” and adds: “We have more competing power blocs than ever, we have China, we have something absolutely sick happening in the United States, we have something similarly sick happening in the former Soviet Union. We have a convergence of hostility upon social democracy, human decency as we understand it.”

Of presidents Trump and Putin he sees “a convergence of autocrats” that cannot be good for the world. Russia still scares him. “Really the transition from tsarism to communism, from the golden tsars to the red tsars to the grey tsars has not produced a fundamental social change,” he explains. “The ascent of Putin completely re-established the power of the intelligence community, which is over-arching now.”

Meanwhile, to herald Smiley’s return, publishers Bloomsbury have released a Smiley’s London map, which identifies a dozen key locations such as his home at 9 Bywater Street, Chelsea, a Bloomsbury safe house at 14 Disraeli Street and, of course, the Spy HQ at Cambridge Circus plus Hampstead Heath. Price £9.99.

• A Legacy of Spies by John le Carre (Penguin Viking, £20).

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