What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
by John le Carré

Field-Tested by Michael Bierut

in Berlin, Germany

The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré is as close to a perfect book as any I’ve ever read. Published at the crest of the Cold War in 1963, its 25 short chapters tell a story that is as tight as a noose and is as ruthless as an executioner.

Alec Leamas is a British intelligence agent at the end of his career. One of his men is shot at the Berlin Wall. Cynical and exhausted, he’s called back to London, ready to be put out to pasture, but for one last operation. The mechanics of the affair play out like clockwork: le Carré’s mastery of understatement and misdirection would never be put to better effect. There is a girl, an encounter with East German counterintelligence, and finally, a fateful trip to Berlin. As the story unfolds, the reader connects the dots and fills in the unspoken blanks. It’s fun and flattering to feel you’re one step ahead of the plot.

That sense of self-satisfaction continues up until the very moment — right at the end of Chapter 23 — that you realize that everything you thought you knew was wrong. It’s some consolation, and a testimony to le Carré’s skill as a storyteller, that the protagonist is exactly in the same position as you, a point driven home with a vengeance by one of my favorite sentences ever: “And suddenly, with the terrible clarity of a man too long deceived, Leamas understood the whole ghastly trick.” The book reaches its conclusion — “the lousy end to a filthy, lousy operation” — where it began, with death at the Berlin Wall.

I had probably read The Spy Who Came in from the Cold a dozen times before I finally made it to Berlin a few years ago, long after the reunification of Germany and the dismantling of the Wall. The country was bustling with construction, redevelopment, and euros. I stayed at the newly-restored Hotel Adlon, near the Brandenberg Gate pictured on the front of my $0.75 Dell paperback edition of le Carré, famous at that moment for being the site of a then-fresh outrage by Michael Jackson (he had held a baby out the hotel’s window to show it to his screaming fans below).

On my last day in Germany, I went out to find what I could of Alec Leamas’ Berlin. On Bernauer Straße, a 64-meter-long segment of the Berlin Wall has been preserved, bookended neatly on either side by six-meter-tall steel walls that seemed, as I approached, to give the whole thing the abstract air of an art installation.

But there was nothing artful at all about what I found there. I was surprised: I had always pictured the Berlin Wall running through streets and alleys, with the life of the city teeming on either side. Instead, on Bernauer Straße, you see not just the wall, but all the associated fortifications that were required to make the design work. In the end, the Wall wasn’t the point. What was important was a parallel fence, 100 yards back into East German territory, and the resulting "death strip" that would have to been traversed by any person who wanted to get anywhere near freedom. At Bernauer Straße, they’ve preserved all of it: the death strip, the floodlights, the guard towers. Partly submerged beneath the raked gravel of the no-man’s-land, you can still see the remains of the homes — bricks, boards, vintage household appliances — that were hastily demolished to keep people away from the Wall. It is ugly, banal, and completely unromantic.

I had brought my copy of le Carré to read, but there really isn’t anywhere to sit. I read it on my way back to the hotel, finally understanding how the enchanting clockworks of the plot had been contrived to adorn a story of unremitting bleakness; another near triumph of form over function. But, for me, not this time. I was tired. The next day, I was home.

Michael Bierut is a partner in the New York office of Pentagram. He is a senior critic in graphic design at the Yale School of Art and a founding writer for Design Observer. This October, Michael will receive the Design Mind Award from The Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum.

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