Thursday, 24 September 1998

John le Carré: The Looking Glass War (1965)

Edition: Pan, 1975
Review number: 118

The Looking Glass War, classic John le Carré, is a damning indictment of an amateur attitude in a professional world. It is about a small intelligence agency, a left-over from the war that by the late sixties had been over for more than twenty years, which is virtually defunct but valued for its archives. A rumour of odd troop movements in East Germany prompts it to an overflight by a pilot of a commercial aircraft to take photographs while pretending to go off course. The man from the agency trying to collect the film he has taken is killed, apparently from a hit and run accident, though the film has been taken from the body.

His death prompts Leclerc, in charge of the agency since the war, to consider running an agent for the first time in twenty years. This agent is prepared and equipped in the fashion appropriate in 1945; no one has any idea that things have changed. The equipment he is given includes a drastically obsolete radio transmitter. The agent is a bitter loner, himself left over from the war when he was betrayed to the Germans in its last days. The whole proceedings are watched by the naive Avery, new since the war; he is the centre of the book. His admiration for Leclerc and what he acheived during the war tuens to horror as he realises that the agent is being sent to his death. In their enthusiasm for a return to the operational days of the war, none of the others even begin to see this. The only person who does is Smiley, observing what is going on (from a distance) for the Circus; but Control will not let him interfere in what is bound to be a disastrous mission and which will probably bring an end to an agency which is (however ineffectually) in competition with the Circus.

This is one of le Carré's greatest novels, the air of impending doom so well done that it is a struggle to read. It is a book not just about cynicism and disillusionment but also about the dangers of misplaced enthusiasm and stupidity.

The title is a reference to the distance between the dreams of the spymasters and the reality of the sixties cold war by relating it to the adventures of Alice (Through the Looking Glass).

No comments: