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Weekend Reading: Rereading: William Boyd: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré

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William Boyd: Rereading: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/24/carre-spy-came-cold-boyd: 'One of the aspects of the novel that always bothered me was the end. Leamas... finally realises how he has been used by his own side, how he has been fooled, manipulated and misinformed to bring about a conclusion that was the opposite of the one he thought he was colluding in. He is offered the chance to flee, to escape and climb over the Wall with the young girl he sort-of loves back to West Berlin. He and the girl are driven to a "safe" area of the Wall in a car provided for him by a double agent. Operationally and procedurally this seemed to me a huge error. My feeling was that an agent of Leamas's vast experience and worldliness would

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William Boyd: Rereading: The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jul/24/carre-spy-came-cold-boyd: 'One of the aspects of the novel that always bothered me was the end. Leamas... finally realises how he has been used by his own side, how he has been fooled, manipulated and misinformed to bring about a conclusion that was the opposite of the one he thought he was colluding in. He is offered the chance to flee, to escape and climb over the Wall with the young girl he sort-of loves back to West Berlin. He and the girl are driven to a "safe" area of the Wall in a car provided for him by a double agent. Operationally and procedurally this seemed to me a huge error. My feeling was that an agent of Leamas's vast experience and worldliness would surely be aware that such a means of escape was riven with jeopardy. Yet he goes along with it and pays the price. What had I missed? Reading the book again I now think I understand—but it does require close attention (new readers look away now)...

...Leamas, betrayed, hoodwinked, terminally fatigued, is in a state of existential despair at the end of the novel. The opportunity to escape means nothing to him—but it does mean everything to him that the girl he is with, Liz Gold, innocent, unwittingly drawn into the Circus's plotting—should escape. Leamas knows unequivocally at the end of the book that he is going to be betrayed again (there is a crucial, easily missed, detail about a car leaving when it is not meant to) but he tries all the same to thwart that betrayal. If only he can get Liz back to the west—that is all that matters to him—he's indifferent to his own fate. So he tries to get Liz over the Wall.

My reading of the last page of the book is that the British Secret Service (who have used Liz as brutally and pitilessly as they have used their trusted agent Leamas) always intended that Leamas should escape—should come in from the cold—and that Liz should die on the Wall. She knows too much: free in the west, she would be too much of a liability. A disaster, in espionage terms. She is duly shot as she tries to climb over—but Leamas still has the opportunity to make it to freedom.

George Smiley, off-screen mastermind of this devilish brew of bluff and counter-bluff, is waiting for him. Leamas hears Smiley shout: "The girl, where's the girl?" But what Smiley wants to know is not whether the girl is safe but whether the girl is dead. That is the key implication (or so I read it)—that she's never coming over and was never meant to. Leamas suddenly understands this—it is the final betrayal he suffers—and he climbs back down to the east and meets his death....

Clues planted early in the novel.... The very last sentence of the book.... "As he fell, Leamas saw a small car smashed between great lorries, and children waving cheerfully through the window." This sentence recalls a moment of reflection some 140 pages earlier in the novel. Leamas... was on an earlier mission and was driving too fast on an autobahn and almost collided with a small car with four children in the back. The near accident traumatises him.... Second, the concept of a "spy who comes in from the cold".... Le Carré uses the phrase in this sense in the novel but also supplies us with another reading of it very early on in the narrative, putting the words in the mouth of "Control", the head of the Secret Service, as he briefs Leamas on his mission. "We have to live without sympathy," Control muses. Then adds: "That's impossible, of course. We act it to one another, all this hardness; but we aren't like that really. I mean... one can't be out in the cold all the time; one has to come in from the cold... d'you see what I mean?" So, "coming in from the cold" also means displaying a fundamental human empathy, of living with sympathy for others. It means the very opposite of being "hard".

The paradox at the end of this superb, tough, highly sophisticated novel is that Leamas, in refusing to come in from the cold as a spy, does in fact come in from the cold as a person. His destruction is coincidental with his attainment. In his deliberate orchestration of his death he shows that he is a human being...


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Bradford DeLong
J. Bradford DeLong is Professor of Economics at the University of California at Berkeley and a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research. He was Deputy Assistant US Treasury Secretary during the Clinton Administration, where he was heavily involved in budget and trade negotiations. His role in designing the bailout of Mexico during the 1994 peso crisis placed him at the forefront of Latin America’s transformation into a region of open economies, and cemented his stature as a leading voice in economic-policy debates.

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