The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold is a spy story. It’s possibly the greatest Cold War spy story out there. Len Deighton’s Ipcress File and Funeral in Berlin follow on in this manner. While Ian Fleming’s James Bond lives in a world of luxury and glamour.
Spy work is generally grubby and unglamorous, we are led to believe. It’s dirty work. Alec Leamas exists within this world. It’s grey and dreary. It’s mundane and common place. He’s an older man, cynical, past his best perhaps. Burnt out. Dispensable. Harry Palmer is younger, cheekily boyish, playful. Bond is the comic-book alpha male – wish-fulfilment.
Spy work is mostly boring. Boringly stressful. Tireless self-sacrifice. It requires the kind of dedication that calls on almost superhuman levels of self-control. It involves keeping oneself emotionally distant, apart – out of reach, psychologically self-sufficient. That emotional distance is necessary in order not to give the game away. It’s requires a certain ‘coldness’. The level of control goes to the point of suppressing one’s own identity. Living within an assumed identity. It’s a process that can break the subject. Literally turning them insane. Harry Palmer and James Bond may face glamorised violence, but it’s never as real as the ongoing psychological pressure Leamas faces.
Most fictional secret agents are too busy seducing women, attending cocktail parties, or perfecting their wardrobe style. Harry Palmer is the common man transposed into the spy world. Bond is a fantasy, a seductive cliché of the comic book spy. Harry Palmer is a working-class hero who doesn’t enjoy killing people. Bond is a cultured psychopath. An aristocrat of sorts, hobnobbing with the elite in their casinos, strutting about in his fancy dinner suit. The ‘gentleman’ spy. A heroic psychopath. He murders his enemies and cracks infantile jokes about their gruesome death. We like him because he’s entertaining, an alpha-male, our monster unleashed on the enemy – it’s okay because he’s on our side. Alec Leamas is more of a pawn, enduring the horror of the world.
The story is told in third person, mostly from the viewpoint of Alec Leamas, and to a lesser extent Liz Gold. Some sections are omniscient but are used to move the story forward without getting in the way. They are not used to provide a space for the author to interject his opinions. All experience, internal thoughts, interpretations and making sense of the world takes place through the character viewpoint. John le Carré’s use of viewpoints is disciplined. They are there to deliver the story. Although it’s a third person viewpoint it often feels like it’s written in first person. We get inside the head of the character. But, John le Carré holds back on the information he provides to the reader. The plot revel depends on this.
Even though we see inside the mind of Leamas, we only get to see the things John le Carré wants us to see. It’s highly selective. Leamas does appear to love Liz later on. He consciously decides that she represents the ‘meaning’ in his life. He rejects his spy identity (the cold). He makes a moral decision, and acts on it accordingly. This is what coming in from the cold implies. It’s more than forsaking operational duties to become a civilian. It’s letting go of a brutalised military identity, the ‘cold’ operative who obeys orders. It’s about opening himself up to the warmth of a real human connection – his love for Liz. This also makes him vulnerable. A dangerous thing for a spy. Human warmth is a luxury any proficient spy must shun if they wish to survive.
The Christmas story
While it wasn’t the first Christmas story, Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol (1843) has become the best known Christmas tale. Fittingly, it’s a cross-genre story that merges the ghost story with a morality-based redemptive ending. The Christmas setting gives the story a contrast between the coldness of winter against the warmth of human goodness.
When three ghosts visit Ebenezer Scrooge, showing him his callous selfishness, he realises that he must change his ways. His new behaviour also transforms the lives of those around him. It makes his life more meaningful and happier. The tale has been retold in countless theatrical productions, radio plays, and films. Mainstream Christmas films often feature a central character who has fallen into cynicism or materialism and must be reminded about the Christmas message. This may involve some Christmas ‘magic’, an intervention by Santa Claus or one of his helpers, or a Good Samaritan type of character. In romcom versions of the Christmas story (especially made for television films) two characters are mutually attracted to one another, but one (or both) of them stubbornly refuses to contemplate getting into a relationship. They must be reminded about the importance of giving love a chance, taking a risk, seeing beyond their career – and learning to embrace their family and friends.
The importance of family is a recurring theme in the Christmas story. In National Lampoons Christmas Vacation (1989), Clark Griswold does everything he can to provide a traditional Christmas for his family, just like the ones he enjoyed as a boy, and to protect his family from the harsh realities of the world. In Jingle All the Way (1996) another father, Howard Langston, realises that his workaholic lifestyle has alienated him from his wife and son. He attempts to compensate for his lack of attention by obtaining the last Turbo-Man action figure for his son. His quest results in self-discovery and redemption. What his son really needs is a father who spends more time with his child.
Sometimes a magical being is the catalyst for change, an elf, or a snowman. In the buddy story Deck the Halls (2006) two neighbourhood enemies who loathe one another discover each others’ finer qualities. The Christmas story is a ‘feel good’ story, full of hope. It’s a place where decency and humanity triumphs. Part of its appeal of the Christmas story is that are no ‘win/lose scenarios’, because everyone is a winner.