The Spy Who Came In From The Cold – Still Trying To Escape The Chill After All These Years

“We’re all the same you know, that’s the joke.”

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is John Le Carré’s 1963 novel about the Cold War, as fought by the secret services of Britain on one side, East Germany and Russia on the other. Well, I talk of sides, but that isn’t really accurate. You’d think it would be clear which side was which, seeing as there’s a great big Berlin Wall between them, topped with barbed wire, swept by search lights, guarded by soldiers. Ironically, the book shows that one side is much the same as the other. It is difficult to work out who is working for whom. Spies double cross their governments, though that treachery might be loyal service in disguise. Both sides use the same ruthless methods.

There is a curious use of the word “same” in the novel. It crops up a lot. Have a look at page 12 – when Control is talking to our world-weary spy protagonist, Alec Leamas. The word “same” appears nine times. And then through the book, it’s there repeatedly – 57 times in all. I counted them! Same even appears on the very last page, referring to steps on a ladder over the Berlin Wall. Same, same, same. That got me thinking – when we find the same cold on both sides of the wall, a reader could be forgiven for thinking that the cold is everywhere, and there is no coming in from it.

But there is warmth in the book, personified in certain individuals, particularly in the figure of Liz Gold, a lovely, caring women Alec Leamas meets while working in a library. She is nurturing, sensible and kind, the moral compass of the book really. Consider Elizabeth Gold’s name. Gold has all sorts of positive connotations of warmth and happiness. Then again, don’t you think gold sounds so much like cold? It’s sounds almost the SAME! If the cold is everywhere, maybe the warm is too.

The Spy Who Came In From The Cold is a fascinating book, a compelling spy story hiding all sorts of subtlety, like a cold war cypher. It is certainly true that readers can make a pessimistic interpretation. John Le Carré, by all accounts was himself a pessimistic and troubled man. Nevertheless, there is something in his book, a suggestion that while we are out in the cold with no possible hope of relief, warmth is never far away.

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