The Spy Who Came in From the Cold by John le Carre

This is on the list of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, which means we are to respect it as a Very Important Book and give it a good rating. If I’m being honest, I guess it deserves this ranking. The characters are compelling, the dialogue is good, there are no superfluous scenes, and the whole thing has a creepy and secretive atmosphere that’s very compelling.

But I cannot in good conscience give this more than two stars, for the simple reason that, for the majority of the book, I never had any idea what was going on.

The story, to give you some idea of what I mean, can be best summed up like this: Leamas is a British spy in the 50’s dealing with the Soviets. He wants to retire from the service and grudgingly agrees to do one last job, even though he is Getting Too Old For This Shit. His job: get fired from the service, fall into disgrace, get recruited by Soviets, double-cross them and take out a former British agent who’s working for Berlin now. (if you’ve seen The Departed you can kinda guess how it goes) Then there’s a trial, which is weird, because I kinda thought the whole purpose of being a spy was the ability to work outside the confines of the law, but whatever. So there’s a lot of secrecy going on, and the problem is that le Carre often doesn’t bother to let the readers in on the secrets. Code phrases are used and not explained, past characters and events are referenced frequently as if we’re supposed to know who/what they are (to the point where I thought I had accidentally picked up a book that was part of a series), and Leamas (our unreliable narrator) certainly ain’t talking.

Also, the book is about Soviet Germany in the 50’s, which put me at an immediate disadvantage. Look, I was born in 1989 – I just don’t know that much about post-WWII Soviet politics, and they frankly don’t interest me enough to do background research just so I can understand this story. When I found myself trying to remember which side of the Berlin Wall was the Communist one, I knew I was out of my league. This is a good story, the problem was that it just went over my head completely and I wasn’t able to appreciate it as much as I should have.

“There’s only one law in this game. …What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs? …This is a war. It’s graphic and unpleasant because it’s fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it’s nothing, nothing at all beside other wars – the last or the next.”

Verdict: two out of five stars

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