Viking, 2019, 288 pp., $29.00
Viking, 2017, 272 pp., $28.00
It is cheap praise to compliment the espionage author John le Carré as a Cold War icon who has found the ability to remain relevant after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Over the past 30 years, le Carré has consistently demonstrated his ability to depict the moral ambiguities, sacrifices, and collateral damage of power exercised at high and low levels. With skillful characterization and pointed prose, he has exposed the moral compromises at the heart of the Global War on Terror, Western engagement in the developing world, and the corporatization of crime. In Agent Running in the Field, le Carré’s 25th novel, he takes on Brexit and the election of President Trump. Surprisingly, what emerges is not fatalism and a story of helplessness in the face of power, as he has so often depicted in the past, but his own admiration of naive and stubborn optimists.
Agent Running in the Field is narrated by Nat, a middle-aged British intelligence operative, posted for his final tour to a quiet station in London that carries out counterintelligence against Russia and its loosely aligned oligarchs throughout the city. Nat is passionate about his work but ambivalent about the pitiful internal politics of his service, which are depicted, as ever in le Carré’s novels, as working against British national security. Aside from his occupation, Nat is an everyman whose mundane personal concerns, such as a recuperating marriage and a rebellious daughter, make him the picture of middle-class British sensibility. While his resentments for an unnamed “pig-ignorant foreign secretary” of the UK are clear (the book takes place in 2018, in case there is any doubt who the comment refers to), his views and actions are moderate compared to other characters, such as his wife or the novel’s other lead, Ed.
Ed is Nat’s millennial badminton partner, and he spends most of the narrative as a semi-amiable blowhard, prone to rants about Trump, Brexit, and Putin. Liberated by speaking through a young, drunken member of “the resistance,” le Carré gives voice to his own well-publicized anger at the current state of politics in the West. Comparisons between Trump supporters and Nazis, digressions on the small-mindedness of Brexit, and fatalism about the ability of the United States or United Kingdom to recover any moral legitimacy abound. Despite le Carré’s inferred sympathy for Ed’s frequent rants, though, the character’s passion is not depicted positively. Ed is the rampaging id of an activist who gives little thought to how to drive the change he desires. As in most of le Carré’s novels, this ideological naivety guarantees that Ed is doomed to ensnarement—which Nat conveniently discovers in his professional capacity.
Nat’s actions following his discovery of Ed’s predicament is when le Carré diverges from his record of condemning idealists to loss, surrender, stalemate, or empty moral victories. Ed’s predicament calls to mind Liz Gold, the naive British Communist Party member in le Carré’s breakthrough novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Her idealism is manipulated by spymasters on both sides of the Berlin Wall—including le Carré’s most famous creation, George Smiley—to reinforce the status quo and entrench a brutal ally of the West in a position of power in East Germany. Ultimately, Liz and the novel’s protagonist, Alec Leamas, are collateral damage despite her sincerity and his hard-earned commitment to service.
In the 56 years between The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Agent Running in the Field, le Carré has progressively awarded his idealistic characters more dignity. Spies exit espionage on their own terms, narrowly survive brutal ordeals, or in the case of his tale of pharmaceutical and government corruption in Africa, The Constant Gardener, pencil-pushing bureaucrats gain a spine and a martyr complex. Brexit, however, has motivated le Carré to write novels in which adrift idealists begin to push back and win more than just moral victory.
Agent Running in the Field is le Carré’s second book focusing on Brexit and our current political moment. The first, A Legacy of Spies, came out in 2017; le Carré dubbed it his “case for Europe” in response to the 2016 Brexit referendum. As in Agent Running in the Field, the novel centers on an older spy confronting the anger of a younger generation. Peter Guillam, the right-hand man of George Smiley from some of le Carré’s most popular Cold War novels, is drawn out of retirement and into conflict with Christoph, the previously unknown son of Alec Leamas. Christoph, a mercenary figure, stands in contrast to Ed’s more idealistic anger. He pursues a lawsuit against the British Intelligence Service for its past betrayal of his father, not out of moral outrage but because he hopes for a financial windfall. Christoph functions as a microcosm for any number of current populist leaders who leverage the past mistakes of a ruling elite for their own nakedly craven gain, dressed up in faux idealism.
Christoph’s greed is ultimately his undoing. Toward the novel’s end, Guillam finds justification for his and Smiley’s morally compromised past actions not in British nationalism nor a universal notion of world peace but a smaller objective: a Europe more predisposed to peace than it had been in the past.
In Agent Running in the Field, Nat and Ed’s respective affinities for Europe are tied to their identities as children of the continent. Nat is the son of a Russian emigré; Ed, a former student in Germany. They find unity across generations and temperaments in the ideal of a united Europe. Cold Warriors like Guillam and Smiley, le Carré suggests, made moral compromises so that their successors like Nat and Ed would have a Europe they could actually defend—a task more urgent than ever in the face of the Trumps, Johnsons, and Christophs of the world.
A second millennial in Nat’s life, his deputy Florence, plays an equally powerful role inspiring his decisions. She is depicted as an ambitious talent who is unafraid to challenge intelligence bureaucracy roadblocks in the pursuit of her idea of justice, in contrast to Nat, who is content to coast on his pension. In this sense, she presents as the prototype of a hyper-ambitious millennial.
Eventually, she is united with Ed in anger at the British government. Nat turns from observer of both youths’ frustrations to fellow traveler after an entertaining interlude when he meets with a former Russian source turned oligarch. In a profanity-filled diatribe, the former source lays bare the inextricable ties between Putin, Brexiteers, and Trump, united not so much by a direct conspiracy as by greed and an absence of values. In such a world, he reasons, it’s only natural that the wealthy head of a mafia-state would command obedience.
While le Carré has suggested that literary fame has granted him access to firsthand sources, he was by his own admission a middling, low-level spy, with no particular acumen for intelligence work. He does not rely on a privileged view behind the curtain of current political events, but rather an empathetic ability to enter the minds of people caught in these events, no matter the year. His explanation for our current political moment does not entail any grand subterfuge. Without oversight, le Carré suggests in Legacy and Agent, the self-appointed guardians of a country’s values are liable to destructive overreach, no matter their intent. Greedy men will do self-interested things and seize advantage of any opportunity they see. While this explanation for Trump and Brexit can be frustratingly simple coming from such a master storyteller, it does reflect reality by positing the nature of individuals, not the turning of an intricate plot, as the main reason for the political chaos we are living through on both sides of the Atlantic.
Le Carré does have guidance for how we push back against craven populists: action and atonement. Guillam and Smiley, as chronological contemporaries of le Carré, are two of the clearest stand-ins for the author. Their regrets give voice to his regrets, much as Ed and Florence’s anger give voice to his anger. The main recourse left to Guillam and Smiley, so long after the Cold War’s end, is to transparently explain their actions and look forward. Nat, the man in between generations, is the hinge upon which the most radical action of the two novels occurs. His complacent character, in comparison to the Cold Warriors and the millennials, can only be redeemed by picking a side. He turns away from the cynicism of his Russian contemporary and invests his hope in a rebellious act on behalf of the millennial idealists.
Nat, Peter Guillam, and George Smiley can only atone for their mistakes in creating today’s world by stepping aside for a younger, albeit sometimes misguided or naive, generation to defend their shared ideals and the world that they fought to create. This is an encouraging message coming from an 88-year-old man who began his career by writing off one of his purest characters, Gold, as a useful idiot. Now, le Carré seems to believe that the youth act with the most moral clarity, are the least disenchanted, and will persist because they have the most to lose. Their incessant, often rebellious optimism, suggests the world-weary spy writer, is the best hope for a world hijacked by cynical opportunists.