In the early 1960’s, there were two main types of spy fiction. One, exemplified by Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels, concerned glamorous action and adventure. Indeed, by 1963, the Bond novels—and increasingly the film adaptations based on them—were dominating spy fiction. The second type of spy novel is exemplified by the work of John le Carré, who was himself a former spy. This tradition focused more on the mundane aspects of espionage and featured not larger-than-life super-spies, but the often tired and burned-out, mendacious little men who conduct real spying.
Intelligence organizations gather information; they play individuals against one another, along with their countries. Espionage is all about playing games, using disguises, and assuming roles. The spy observes but may not necessarily participate in events, subsuming his or her personal feelings to the operation and assuming whatever persona will help the cause.
Alec Leamas is a casualty of the Cold War, a used-up spy who has been out in the cold too long. With his Berlin-based network in shambles, apparently because of the effective counterespionage work of the East German Abteilung, he is adrift when he is recalled to headquarters in London. With this opening, le Carré sets up his breakthrough spy novel and establishes the approach he would follow in his subsequent novels that examine the moral parameters of the Cold War and its aftermath.
Leamas has been doing his country’s bidding so long that he has stopped asking the reasons or questioning the morality of his actions. He believes in nothing more than doing the job. Le Carré portrays events that force Leamas to confront not only his basic cynicism but also his detachment from other human beings. This confrontation is brought about through his relationship with the young and vulnerable Liz Gold and through his philosophical discussions with Fiedler, his East German adversary.
Liz, Leamas’s fellow worker at the library, immediately exhibits a concern for him when he first comes to work. She offers him part of her lunch and later entertains him at her flat and cooks him meals. When he becomes quite ill, she nurses him at his rooms and buys him costly foods and medicines. She even takes him into her bed. Throughout their relationship, Leamas seemingly remains detached and within the role he is playing for the Circus. He rarely talks to her and mocks her commitment to communism. He is astounded that she should be so naïve; she is equally astounded that he is so cynical.
Leamas’s discussions while a prisoner of the Abteilung with Fiedler further introduce this issue of moral commitment, or lack of it, on Leamas’s part....
(The entire section is 674 words.)