The Spy Who Came in from the Cold explores the emotional experience and outward behavior of an individual who attempts to perform an assumed identity. Even for a spy, attempting to stick to a role is mentally exhausting and can make the individual easy to manipulate. Both the Circus, the British spying headquarters, and its East German counterpart the Abteilung use this to their advantage.
The novel tracks the process by which Alec Leamas loses track of his actual identity, making him more easily manipulated by the large organization he works for. Alec Leamas is asked by the head of British intelligence, Control, to perform the identity of a gruff, anti-social, burnt-out alcoholic for an operation, which he believes is meant to frame the East German agent Hans-Dieter Mundt. This identity, however, is not too different from Leamas’s actual identity. Leamas is already emotionally battered by the death of so many of his agents at Mundt’s hands. His assumed identity is actually then just a speeding up of the process of his own physical and mental deterioration, as he accentuates his own worst qualities, drinking like a fish and lashing out violently.
Control leads Leamas to believe that by assuming this identity he will be able to lure the East German side to recruit him as a defector, at which point he will give evidence that will lead the East Germans to try Mundt as a traitor. But unknown to Leamas, Mundt is working for the British, and Control means for Leamas’s plot to be discovered. Control wants the East Germans to believe that Leamas has been sent by the British to frame Mundt, because if the East Germans believe they have uncovered a British plot to discredit Mundt, this will assure them that Mundt is, in fact, a loyal agent. As his assumed and “true” identities blur more and more, Leamas becomes all the less likely to suspect that he is being manipulated himself. He views his own mental collapse as if it is a necessary part of his job, a masterful performance, when it is actually playing into the hands of his bosses.
The novel also explores the feelings and behavior of an individual who wishes to put on a performance, but does not know what kind of performance to choose. Unlike Leamas, who believes he is assuming an identity to serve a mission, when Liz Gold is summoned to testify in an East German court, she does not know what the case is about or how she should act to protect Leamas. She flounders helplessly, trying to discover the right way to answer the lawyer’s questions, and whether she ought to lie or tell the truth. Liz is extremely disturbed by the feeling that everyone in the courtroom is learning a secret from her testimony that she does not herself understand. She wants to have control over the impression she makes, but, since she does not know what information the lawyer is hoping to get from her testimony, she does not know how to fabricate a story. She has lost her autonomy and she knows it.
Leamas believes he is in control of his identity, while Liz hates her lack of control of the impression she is creating, but in the end, both Leamas and Liz are pawns in the hands of the intelligence services. Neither can autonomously control the effect their behavior has on others. In fact, Liz has a firmer grasp of where she really stands than Leamas does. Once she understands how British Intelligence used her to pursue its goal, she sees that it is illogical that she be allowed to survive. Leamas, on the other hand, is too broken down by trying to play a role whose purpose he never understood to recognize that Liz will be killed on the Berlin Wall. The novel suggests that autonomy is impossible when the individual’s identity is being manipulated by a large, impersonal organization like the Abteilung or the Circus.
Identity and Autonomy ThemeTracker
Identity and Autonomy Quotes in The Spy Who Came in From the Cold
That damned woman, thought Leamas, and that fool Karl who'd lied about her. Lied by omission, as they all do, agents the world over. You teach them to cheat, to cover their tracks, and they cheat you as well. He'd only produced her once, after that dinner in the Schürzstrasse last year. Karl had just had his big scoop and Control had wanted to meet him. Control always came in on success. They'd had dinner together—Leamas, Control, and Karl. Karl loved that kind of thing. He turned up looking like a Sunday School boy, scrubbed and shining, doffing his hat and all respectful. Control had shaken his hand for five minutes and said: "I want you to know how pleased we are, Karl, damn pleased." Leamas had watched and thought, "That'll cost us another couple of hundred a year." When they'd finished dinner Control pumped their hands again, nodded significantly and implying that he had to go off and risk his life somewhere else, got back into his chauffeur-driven car.
The process of going to seed is generally considered to be a protracted one, but in Leamas this was not the case. In the full view of his colleagues he was transformed from a man honourably put aside to a resentful, drunken wreck—and all within a few months. There is a kind of stupidity among drunks, particularly when they are sober, a kind of disconnection which the unobservant interpret as vagueness and which Leamas seemed to acquire with unnatural speed. He developed small dishonesties, borrowed insignificant sums from secretaries and neglected to return them, arrived late or left early under some mumbled pretext. At first his colleagues treated him with indulgence; perhaps his decline scared them in the same way as we are scared by cripples, beggars, and invalids because we fear we could ourselves become them; but in the end his neglect, his brutal, unreasoning malice isolated him.
He hardly spoke at supper, and she watched him, her fear growing until she could bear it no more and she cried out suddenly:
“Alec . . . oh, Alec . . . what is it? Is it good-bye?”
He got up from the table, took her hands, and kissed her in a way he'd never done before and spoke to her softly for a long time, told her things she only dimly understood, only half heard because all the time she knew it was the end and nothing mattered any more.
"How very distressing; and nobody to look after you, of course."
There was a very long silence.
"You know she's in the Party, don't you?" Control asked quietly.
"Yes," Leamas replied. Another silence. "I don't want her brought into this."
"Why should she be?" Control asked sharply and for a moment, just for a moment, Leamas thought he had penetrated the veneer of academic detachment. "Who suggested she should be?"
"No one," Leamas replied, "I'm just making the point. I know how these things go—all offensive operations. They have by-products, take sudden turns in unexpected directions. You think you've caught one fish and you find you've caught another. I want her kept clear of it."
"Oh, quite, quite."
"Who's that man in the Labour Exchange—Pitt? Wasn't he in the Circus during the war?"
"I know no one of that name. Pitt, did you say?"
"No, not a name to me. In the Labour Exchange?"
"Oh, for God's sake," Leamas muttered audibly.
Tactically, he reflected, they're right to rush it. I'm on my uppers, prison experience still fresh, social resentment strong. I'm an old horse, I don’t need breaking in; I don’t have to pretend they've offended my honour as an English gentleman. On the other hand they would expect practical objections. They would expect him to be afraid; for his Service pursued traitors as the eye of God followed Cain across the desert.
And finally, they would know it was a gamble. They would know that inconsistency in human decision can make nonsense of the best-planned espionage approach; that cheats, liars, and criminals may resist every blandishment while respectable gentlemen have been moved to appalling treasons by watery cabbage in a Departmental canteen.
Leamas was sweating. Peters watched him coolly, appraising him like a professional gambler across the table. What was Leamas worth? What would break him, what attract or frighten him? What did he hate, above all, what did he know? Would he keep his best card to the end and sell it dear? Peters didn’t think so; Leamas was too much off balance to monkey about. He was a man at odds with himself, a man who knew one life, one confession, and had betrayed them. Peters had seen it before. He had seen it, even in men who had undergone a complete ideological rehearsal, who in the secret hours of the night had found a new creed, and alone, compelled by the internal power of their convictions, had betrayed their calling, their families, their countries. Even they, filled as they were with new zeal and new hope, had had to struggle against the stigma of treachery; even they wrestled with the almost physical anguish of saying that which they had been trained never, never to reveal. Like apostates who feared to burn the Cross, they hesitated between the instinctive and the material; and Peters, caught in the same polarity, must give them comfort and destroy their pride.
"I was head of the Berlin set-up, wasn't I? I'd have been in on it. A high-level agent in East Germany would have to be run from Berlin. I'd have known." Leamas got up, went to the sideboard, and poured himself some whisky. He didn't bother about Peters.
"You said yourself there were special precautions, special procedures in this case. Perhaps they didn't think you needed to know."
"Don't be bloody silly," Leamas rejoined shortly; "of course I'd have known." This was the point he would stick to through thick and thin; it made them feel they knew better, gave credence to the rest of his information. "They will want to deduce in spite of you," Control had said. "We must give them the material and remain sceptical to their conclusions. Rely on their intelligence and conceit, on their suspicion of one another—that's what we must do."
This wasn't part of the bargain; this was different. What the hell was he supposed to do? By pulling out now; by refusing to go along with Peters, he was wrecking the operation. It was just possible that Peters was lying, that this was the test—all the more reason that he should agree to go. But if he went, if he agreed to go east, to Poland, Czechoslovakia, or God knows where, there was no good reason why they should ever let him out—there was no good reason (since he was notionally a wanted man in the West) why he should want to be let out.
Control had done it—he was sure. The terms had been too generous, he'd known that all along. They didn't throw money about like that for nothing—not unless they thought they might lose you. Money like that was a douceur for discomfort and dangers Control would not openly admit to. Money like that was a warning; Leamas had not heeded the warning.
They'd talked about it in the meeting of her party branch. George Hanby, the branch treasurer, had actually been passing Ford the grocer's as it happened, he hadn’t seen much because of the crowd, but he'd talked to a bloke who'd seen the whole thing. Hanby had been so impressed that he'd rung the Worker, and they'd sent a man to the trial—that was why the Worker had given it a middle page spread as a matter of fact. It was just a straight case of protest—of sudden social awareness and hatred against the boss class, as the Worker said. This bloke that Hanby spoke to (he was just a little ordinary chap with specs, white collar type) said it had been so sudden—spontaneous was what he meant—and it just proved to Hanby once again how incendiary was the fabric of the capitalist system. Liz had kept very quiet while Hanby talked: none of them knew, of course, about her and Leamas. She realised then that she hated George Hanby; he was a pompous, dirty-minded little man, always leering at her and trying to touch her.
The qualities he exhibited to Fiedler, the restless uncertainty, the protective arrogance concealing shame, were not approximations but extensions of qualities he actually possessed; hence also the slight dragging of the feet, the aspect of personal neglect, the indifference to food, and an increasing reliance on alcohol and tobacco. When alone, he remained faithful to these habits. He would even exaggerate them a little, mumbling to himself about the iniquities of his Service.
Only very rarely, as now, going to bed that evening, did he allow himself the dangerous luxury of admitting the great lie he lived.
"I've thought about it night and day. Ever since Viereck was shot, I've asked for a reason. At first it seemed fantastic. I told myself I was jealous, that the work was going to my head, that I was seeing treachery behind every tree; we get like that, people in our world. But I couldn't help myself, Leamas, I had to work it out. There’d been other things before. He was afraid—he was afraid that we would catch one who would talk too much!"
"What are you saying? You're out of your mind," said Leamas, and his voice held a trace of fear.
“It all held together, you see. Mundt escaped so easily from England; you told me yourself he did. And what did Guillam say to you? He said they didn't want to catch him! Why not? I'll tell you why—he was their man; they turned him, they caught him, don't you see, and that was the price of his freedom—that and the money he was paid.”
“Riemeck had no car himself, he could not have followed de Jong from his house in West Berlin. There was only one way he could have known—through the agency of our own Security police, who reported de Jong's presence as a matter of routine as soon as the car passed the Inter Sector checkpoint. That knowledge was available to Mundt, and Mundt made it available to Riemeck. That is the case against Hans-Dieter Mundt—I tell you, Riemeck was his creature, the link between Mundt and his imperialist masters!”
Fiedler paused, then added quietly:
“Mundt-Riemeck-Leamas: that was the chain of command, and it is axiomatic of intelligence technique the whole world over that each link of the chain be kept, as far as possible, in ignorance of the others. Thus it is right that Leamas should maintain he knows nothing to the detriment of Mundt: that is no more than the proof of good security by his masters in London.”
"Comrade Mundt took one precaution while the British, with Fiedler’s aid, planned his murder.
"He caused scrupulous enquiries to be made in London. He examined every tiny detail of that double life which Leamas led in Bayswater. He was looking, you see, for some human error in a scheme of almost superhuman subtlety. Somewhere, he thought, in Leamas' long sojourn in the wilderness, he would have to break faith with his oath of poverty, drunkenness, degeneracy, above all of solitude. He would need a companion, a mistress perhaps; he would long for the warmth of human contact, long to reveal a part of the other soul within his breast. Comrade Mundt was right you see. Leamas, that skilled, experienced operator, made a mistake so elementary, so human that . . ."
Liz hated having her back to the court; she wished she could turn and see Leamas, see his face perhaps; read in it some guidance, some sign telling her how to answer. She was becoming frightened for herself; these questions which proceeded from charges and suspicions of which she knew nothing. They must know she wanted to help Alec, that she was afraid, but no one helped her—why would no one help her?
London must have gone raving mad. He'd told them—that was the joke—he’d told them to leave her alone. And now it was clear that from the moment, the very moment he left England—before that, even, as soon as he went to prison—some bloody fool had gone round tidying up—paying the bills, settling the grocer, the landlord; above all, Liz. It was insane, fantastic. What were they trying to do—kill Fiedler, kill their agent? Sabotage their own operation? Was it just Smiley—had his wretched little conscience driven him to this? There was only one thing to do—get Liz and Fiedler out of it and carry the can. He was probably written off anyway. If he could save Fiedler’s skin—if he could do that—perhaps there was a chance that Liz would get away.
Fiedler, who had returned to his chair and was listening with rather studied detachment, looked at Leamas blandly for a moment:
“And you messed it all up, Leamas, is that it?” he asked. “An old dog like Leamas, engaged in the crowning operation of his career, falls for a . . . what did you call her? . . . a frustrated little girl in a crackpot library? London must have known; Smiley couldn't have done it alone.” Fiedler turned to Mundt: “Here's an odd thing, Mundt; they must have known you'd check up on every part of his story. That was why Leamas lived the life. Yet afterwards they sent money to the grocer, paid up the rent; and they bought the lease for the girl. Of all the extraordinary things for them to do . . . people of their experience . . . to pay a thousand pounds, to a girl—to a member of the Party—who was supposed to believe he was broke. Don't tell me Smiley's conscience goes that far. London must have done it. What a risk!”
"But what about Fiedler—don't you feel anything for him?"
"This is a war," Leamas replied. "It's graphic and unpleasant because it's fought on a tiny scale, at close range; fought with a wastage of innocent life sometimes, I admit. But it's nothing, nothing at all besides other wars—the last or the next."
"Oh God," said Liz softly. "You don't understand. You don’t want to. You're trying to persuade yourself. It's far more terrible, what they are doing; to find the humanity in people, in me and whoever else they use, to turn it like a weapon in their hands, and use it to hurt and kill . . ."
Shielding his eyes he looked down at the foot of the wall and at last he managed to see her, lying still. For a moment he hesitated, then quite slowly he climbed back down the same rungs, until he was standing beside her. She was dead; her face was turned away, her black hair drawn across her cheek as if to protect her from the rain.
They seemed to hesitate before firing again; someone shouted an order, and still no one fired. Finally they shot him, two or three shots. He stood glaring round him like a blinded bull in the arena. As he fell, Leamas saw a small car smashed between great lorries, and the children waving cheerfully through the window.