Thursday, July 10, 2008

Two Spy Stories

The two audiobooks (both library books) I have listened to most recently were both spy stories.

I don't normally read spy stories, but I am enjoying having them read to me. Perhaps the pace is appropriate to audiobooks?

The first was You Only Live Twice, a James Bond novel which is nothing like the film version.

It was delightful because of its context: it is very much a product of its time. Ian Fleming provides a description of Bond's visit to Japan that is more of a stereotypical tourist agenda than an espionage operation.

I also appreciated how the two characters of Tanaka and Bond were quietly put forth as contrasts. Tanaka, who had desired to be a Kamikaze pilot, now runs Japan's spy network. He realizes that he has given to his country much more through this work than he would have with the honorable hero's death he once wanted; he sees in retrospect the desire for that honorable and heroic death was actually a selfish desire and not a patriotic one. Now he struggles to define what is honorable in post-WWII Japan. In contrast, Bond begins his mission with purely patriotic motives but completely abandons those to selfishly pursue achieving a personal, heroic revenge, progressing backwards through the moral development Tanaka is in the middle of achieving.

The second story was The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. This is a gritty spy story quite unlike the romanticized world of James Bond. I really enjoyed it, especially its commentary about what it means to be human or good.

Even more fascinating was how Le Carré deliberately emphasizes the similar evils in the British and German espionage circles and then asks which evil is at the root. The different characters pose different answers to what makes spy work "The Cold". Leamas claims it is human depravity: selfish ambitions distilled through the competition of war. Fiedler claims it is personal greed. Mundt claims it is personal desires, which cause the effects of the "game" of espionage to spill over from the official "players" onto innocent lives. Gold claims it is manipulating people as tools.

Le Carré himself gives a different answer, using the character Leamas. When the book begins, Leamas understands his job as gathering information that protects his country. He can live with the fact that occasionally someone must be ruined or killed because many more people are made secure through the information he manages. However, Leamas is wrong. The root of espionage and the truth about his entire career are not really gathering information but misdirecting suspicion. The Cold is about managing suspicion, not information. At its core it is cold-hearted simply to protect and perpetuate itself, not for the sake of the common citizen. This evil root of ruthlessly managing suspicion is secretly behind the more apparent evils of selfish ambitions, greed, desires, and manipulations.

When Leamas discovers that he is actually neither a "protector" nor "information gatherer" but merely a pawn in other people's misdirecting of suspicion he quits in a dramatic way. He "comes in from The Cold" because he can no longer bear that innocents get hurt by espionage work. Leamas was willing to hurt enemy combatants for the sake of his country; he is unwilling to see innocents hurt for the sake of The Cold.

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