A SPY STORY: A Spy Beholds Himself – I recollect the day my covert operative father saw le Carré’s first film

EntRichard Burton as Alec Leamas in “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold”er a caption

For me, a convention-bound girl, it was a glimmer of something significant.  For my father, it was as if the very first day had dawned.

The year was 1966.  My family was on vacation in Germany—we were posted to The Hague then, I was about twelve—and my father, who I thought was a diplomat, had gone out to see “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” the film based on John le Carré’s novel, at a U.S. army post, alone.

My mother, brother and I spent the evening lounging about our Heidelberg hotel room, taking baths and reading after a day of castle-viewing in the wet.  We were all in typical fettle.  I was reading my umpteenth Enid Blyton and begging my mother for a green purse I’d seen in a shop window.  My brother, two years my junior, was gobbling one of his World War II accounts, and my mother was snuggled under her covers with a mystery, grateful, at last, to be warm.

Then, about ten o’clock, my father appeared.  He walked in from out of the drenching German rain, dripping in his Balmacaan raincoat, crossed the threshold, and it was as if the world was stunned.  The bustle stopped.  My father stood there, all joy, illuminated by a Renaissance beam from heaven.

“Well?” my mother said, putting down her book.

“It was very, very good,” he said, his voice full of a hoarse breathiness.

He walked around the room—it was as if he was so abuzz with energy he couldn’t sit down—and then he came over to my brother and me on our beds and gave us big, hard squeezes.  My squeeze was delicious; it thrilled with an exuberance I hadn’t sensed in my father before.  I forgot myself for a moment and watched this new, charged father.

In the film, the washed-up British covert operative, Alec Leamas, played by Richard Burton, pretends to defect to East Germany, and, at the behest of “Control,” the British spy-master,  sacrifices an earnest, truth-telling East German secret serviceman, a would-be whistle-blower, in order to keep in place a ruthless but useful tyrant-traitor, so that he can be further exploited by the British intelligence service.

Leamas has fallen in love with Nancy, the Communist woman he’s used in the operation. When she protests, during their flight along a dark East German road, that he’s killed a good man, he says, “The only rule is expediency. Mundt gives London what it needs, so Mundt lives and Fiedler dies…

“You think spies are moral philosophers measuring everything they do against God or Karl Marx?” he continues.  “They’re seedy, squalid little bastards like me—little men, drunkards, queers, hen-pecked husbands, civil servants playing cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten little lives…It was a filthy operation to save Mundt’s skin.  God save us both.”

Then, taking on Nancy’s belief in the Communists’ purity, hard-bitten Leamas says, “How big does a cause have to be before you kill your friends?  There are a few million bodies on that path.”

I don’t know to what in the film my father most chimed. Perhaps it was the ending, really, in which Leamas dies for love rather than country, that so moved my father.  Or all the complex all of it.

My father was a man who, quite young, had cut himself away from his origins.  Having sipped the elixir of Japan in the army, he’d left his large St. Louis family behind to join the federal government—and not just any arm of government.    He’d joined a club—the covert operations side of the C.I.A.—in which all his activities were secret and those secret activities were fraught with moral quandaries and logistical puzzles of serious consequence for foreign affairs and human lives.  In his daily work he was nameless or falsely-named, engaging in activities he supposedly wasn’t engaging in, invisible.  Neither my brother nor I, nor anyone in the outside world, knew about the underground democrats inside China he lent secret support, the agents he recruited and hid from despots’ torture, the daily work of weighing: Is that worth this?  He often felt un-recognized even at the CIA, where—ironically, but like everywhere—the most visible got the attention and rewards.  Elegant in a khaki suit, kind, a man of thoughts—but misty, my father easily slipped into the backdrop.  He had a talent for “hiding in plain sight.”   The ideal spy in a sense, he was never, literally, seen for who he was.

My father asked for little, and as the years passed, it seemed he cut more and more ground out from under himself, living on less and less.  He believed in living for a higher good.  His ideal was Gandhian renunciation.  But everyone, even a man who can subsist on a couple of sardines and a chunk of carrot, needs affirmation.

Around the time he saw the film, I later learned, my father was liaison to Dutch intelligence during a murky episode in Dutch-American-Chinese relations in which a Chinese “welder,” possibly a would-be defector to the West, fell to his eventual death from the upper story window of the The Hague row house of the Third Secretary of the Communist Chinese diplomatic mission, under very suspicious circumstances.

I have no idea what my father’s specific involvement might have been, nor what he thought of the affair.  What I do know, from my father’s rapt face that rainy night in Heidelberg, is that, to see Alex Leamas–caught up in morally dubious schemes, engaged in relationships behind the Iron Curtain wherein people are supported and used and sacrificed in the name of national security — must have been like seeing himself.  All the passions and perplexities of his own life, usually cached in his mind, there to behold, flashing before his very eyes.  At last: here I am.  I exist.  I am not just a phantom slipping into mist.  What relief, what gladness—even, or especially, to see the hardest and most troubling things.  Oh the joy in my father’s face—at beholding his reflection.

There is something so deeply human–and urgent–about the need for confirmation: to see one’s experience shown, concretized, reflected back.  This is what movies provide, and art, and books, and friends:  They allow one to see oneself, in essence, in action in the world, bulking around.  To a mirror, the heart trills.  And for the spy, whose life is hidden away, how much more powerful such a reflection must be.

But what was it, I wonder, that made this particular moment stick in a self-absorbed twelve year-old girl’s mind?  I knew nothing, at the time, about the true nature of my father’s work.  I think it was simply the experience of seeing my father in a new light: standing tall, apart from me, elated.  Usually, in his daily life, he was intent and hard-working, always attending to the home- or work-related crisis at hand.  His brow knotted behind his horn-rimmed glasses as he tended to multitudinous needs, ever endeavoring to be someone for others.  He was the opposite of unfettered and free.  But in this moment, in that hotel room in Heidelberg, I saw a man on his own, cut loose on his own raft—affirmed and completely joyous.

What I absorbed, as a young girl on the cusp of adolescence that evening in Heidelberg, was a picture of my father as he seldom seemed.  To put beside the busy, buffeted, burdened man, invisible but giving himself away drop by drop: here was a man easy inside his own skin, buoyant with happiness.  And this gave me a kind of permission: to not just bend to demand, but to look out for a sort of cut-loose joy.

Originally published Sunday, January 15th, 2012

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