The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré12 October 2008
I read this shortly after I finished Call for the Dead, and it’s quite interesting to see how Le Carré’s writing style developed between his first book and this one. There are still one or two more of the ‘early’ Le Carré books that I’d like to read, including A Small Town in Germany and possibly A Murder of Quality — they’ll appear in this blog if I happen to get around to them.
The Looking Glass War by John Le Carré
During World War II, the British intelligence services were organised into a number of different divisions responsible for different aspects of espionage and analysis. For reasons of security and inter-departmental propriety, the divisions responsible for political intelligence and military intelligence were kept separate, and known only by their generic codenames — the ‘Circus’ dealt with political affairs, the ‘Department’ dealt with military matters. Even though both agencies operated in Nazi-occupied areas, their remits were distinct and their staffs only collaborated when necessity demanded collaboration. After the war, however, the Circus and the Department found themselves competing in bureaucratic turf wars for government funding and support, and the better-organised Circus outflanked the Department and won the lion’s share of both. The Department was left to fend for itself, as its senior staff spent most of the time dreaming of their glory days and its new recruits muddled along as best they could. Yet when a Department courier is found dead on the side of the road near a small airport in Finland, and a less-than-reliable source passes on information about the possible movement of Soviet nuclear missiles to a site in East Germany near the border with the West, the old hands of the Department frantically work to recruit and retrain a formerly active agent to be infiltrated behind the Iron Curtain — a final push against an old enemy.
The Looking Glass War was John Le Carré’s fourth book, published two years after his best-selling The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and it was nowhere near as successful as its predecessor. Le Carré himself, in the introduction to later editions, considered that much of the reason for the book’s poor reception had to do with the fact that it was very much the antithesis of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Looking Glass War is the story of failure, failed men and failed plans, an intelligence service that cannot remember whether it is fighting the Russians or the Germans and can only scrouge up cast-off agents and hopelessly outdated equipment for a haphazard, suicidal mission. Le Carré, in retrospect, claimed that he had not gone far enough in his critical appraisal of British intelligence in the novel. In his eyes, a proper tale of the British intelligence community of the 1960s could not be written without reference to ‘its internecine feuds and betrayals, its class distinctions and its obsessive vision of the American oaf, trespassing on our precious colonial turf‘ — in short, an unrelentingly bleak vision of Britain after Suez, sleepwalking its way into an uncertain future.
Le Carré claimed that The Looking Glass War was his most realistic spy novel, at least in the sense that it was based on the intelligence community that he knew and in which he briefly served. He finds space to give George Smiley, his best-known character, a minor role as an unwilling liaison between the Circus and the Department, though Smiley plays only a small part in the larger plot. (There may be the faintest hint of foreshadowing of the events of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, although that book would not be written for another decade.) The story dwells on the main themes that crop up quite often in Le Carré’s books, including the nature of betrayal and the toll that espionage work takes on the private lives of those who are involved in intelligence circles. As a spy novel, it is indeed unrelentingly bleak, greyer and grittier than even Le Carré tends to be in his writing. Even so, it seems uncomfortably authentic in the morbidness of its plot and characters; it may be an exaggeration of reality, but there are enough echoes of truth in it to allow our imaginations to take care of the rest.