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A Book Explorer's Odyssey:The Spy Who Came in from the Cold

【明報專訊】In January 1963, Kim Philby, an information officer of the MI6, took a flight to Moscow, and was later exposed as a double agent working for the Soviet Union.

In the same year, David Cornwell, also an MI6 officer who had written two moderately successful spy thrillers under the pseudonym John le Carré, published The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. An instant bestseller, it took the world by storm and remains one of the best works of le Carré. He died aged 89 last December.

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is set in Cold-War era Berlin. Alec Leamas, a spy who operates the Berlin station for Britain, witnesses the assassination of Karl Riemeck, his agent, by the men of Mundt, the head of the East German Abteilung. He returns to London in despair, but is persuaded by Control, the head of the British overseas intelligence services (nicknamed ''the Circus'') for one last operation — framing Mundt as a double agent working for London. Mundt's deputy is already suspecting this, and Leamas's task is to supply ''evidence'' for Fielder for him to incriminate Mundt and facilitate his removal.

As the plot moves, Leamas and his lover Liz, an innocent, idealistic Communist, come to learn that the whole operation is a set-up — not by the East Germany intelligence, but by the Circus he works for.

Like most of his other works, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is marked by its calm, unvarnished language and understated depiction of the world of spies. The agents in his works are far from glamorous. They are the exact opposite of James Bond, a character that le Carré detested. Far from a flamboyant (好炫耀的) womaniser (沉溺女色者), Leamas is a despondent (沮喪的) middle-aged man who is mostly a pawn (棋子) in the novel, and to his mind spies are nothing special (''What do you think spies are: priests, saints and martyrs? They're a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. Do you think they sit like monks in London balancing the rights and wrongs?''). For many, such plain, unembellished depiction provides a glimpse into the world of espionage (諜報), even though his works are completely fictional.

But The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is also characterised by its humanism, which manifests itself in Liz's questions about the ethics of espionage as well as Leamas's ultimate choice. As The Guardian writes, the work explores the ''the gap between the west's high-flown rhetoric of freedom and the gritty reality of defending it''. As the ending suggests, we see that this human side is not lost on Leamas despite his denigration (詆譭) of the occupation and cynicism (犬儒) about the way of life. It is just that early on this human side is often masked by a hint of nihilism (虛無主義), particularly at the beginning when Karl is shot dead by Mundt's agents. At that time he just hopes that Karl will just die immediately, presumably because he does not want Karl to endure any unnecessary suffering.

But perhaps the most stunning aspect of this book is its depiction of the British intelligence agency as such a cold, ruthless enterprise that is so willing to sacrifice its agents just to serve some expedient strategic goals (權宜之計). This is particularly so when you consider the fact that le Carré was still working for the MI6 at the time of writing (he had to leave the MI6 shortly afterwards, since the Philby exposé (曝光) meant that the covers of MI6 agents were blown), and the book's publication coincided with the Philby incident. The portrayal of Liz as a beautiful, kind-hearted communist and Fielder as a conscientious, idealistic agent must also have been at odds with the prevalent we-they dichotomy between the Communist bloc and the Free World. Even by the standards of our times, when our blockbuster movies are often so one-sided and simplistic, that was no small achievement.

More than half a century after the publication of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, it is said that a new Cold War is forming, and there are observers comparing East Berlin to our city. There might not be an iron curtain any more, but there is perhaps a one-way mirror. On one side is a world that remains tolerant towards the expression of non-conformist ideas and eccentric writers (John le Carré declined knighthood and refused to have his works considered for the prestigious Booker Prize). On the other side, not so much.

■Writer's Profile

If life is a voyage, Terence Yip (葉凱楓) likes to navigate by the books. That's what he does in this column.

(Email: terenceyipmingpao@outlook.com)

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