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Author’s wit, prose still sharp as old friends return in ‘Legacy’

  • COURTESY VIKING

“A LEGACY OF SPIES”

John le Carre

Viking ($28)

John le Carre’s new novel, his 24th, is a throwback, a coda to “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1963), his best-known book. It rehashes decisions made in the coldest years of the Cold War. Among this book’s pleasures is a reminder that adults were once in charge of the destiny of the free world.

Le Carre’s prose remains brisk. His wit is intact and rolls as if on casters. He is as profitably interested as ever in values, especially the places where loyalty, patriotism and affection rub together and fray.

This buttoned-down writer, now 85, even indulges in a bit of showmanship. Le Carre hauls out his greatest creation, the Yoda-like spymaster George Smiley, for a cameo appearance in “A Legacy of Spies,” as if he were taking a ’60s-era Lamborghini long kept in the garage for a jaunty Sunday spin.

His protagonist is Peter Guillam, a longtime protege of Smiley’s in the British Secret Service, aka the Circus, and long retired to the south coast of Brittany. Guillam is white-haired now and has hearing aids. He is hauled back to London to explain some of his long-ago actions, intelligence operations in which people close to him died, perhaps unnecessarily. The children of some of le Carre’s best-known characters have grown up and demand justice.

Guillam is forced to recall ancient events in interviews that border on interrogations, and to read newly found documents that bring the past rushing uncomfortably back.

The first page sets this novel’s disbelieving and Lear-like tone: “I am driven in age and bewilderment to set down, at whatever cost, the light and dark sides of my involvement in the affair.”

There is chaos in the present as well as in the past. Guillam is stalked by a deranged and grieving man. “I have a sense of fighting to the last man,” he tells us, “and the last man is me.”

Guillam carries dual passports; he is half-French and half-English. He is familiar to le Carre’s readers. Indeed, he played a role in le Carre’s first novel. A more salient thing about him is that he’s a sexy beast — perhaps too sexy. Nearly every woman he comes into contact with, past and present, is leggy and wants to wrestle him into bed.

There’s a distant oink of male chauvinism in this tweedy novel, one that goes beyond establishing the sexual atmosphere of swinging ’60s-era Britain.

At his farmhouse in Brittany, the elderly Guillam lives with Catherine, a much younger woman, and her 9-year-old daughter. Catherine has always been there; her parents and grandparents were tenants on the property.

We’re told by Guillam that “I have regarded her as my ward” after the death of her father, and “I watched her grow from infancy.” That Guillam now sleeps with her isn’t just unlikely but a bit too Woody Allen for my tastes.

Le Carre is not of my generation but I have read him for long enough to understand how, for many readers, his characters are old friends — part of their mental furniture. There’s something moving about seeing him revive them so effortlessly, to see that the old magic still holds.

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