The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Study Guide

John le Carré

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The Spy Who Came in From the Cold | Chapter 1 : Checkpoint | Summary



In a checkpoint building at the Berlin Wall, Alec Leamas, who works as an agent for British Secret Service, is watching for someone who will cross from East Berlin to West Berlin, but the person is late. Leamas has been waiting for hours and seems anxious. Leamas, along with an American agent and a policeman, see a woman in a car coming from East Berlin. There are three checkpoints she must pass through. The guards at all three checkpoints allow her to do so. Leamas approaches the woman in the car. She tells him that the East German officials are looking for the man Leamas is waiting for, whose name is Karl Riemeck. Apparently, other British spies have been caught. Leamas gets in the car to speak with her. The woman, Elvira, is married, but is having an affair with Karl. Elvira knows a lot about Karl's covert activities in East Berlin, which upsets Leamas. Elvira claims that Karl will be crossing over to West Germany tonight. Leamas gives her a key to an apartment where she can stay safely and heads back to the checkpoint.

The policeman tells Leamas that he can't cover Karl by using gunfire because it would be considered an act of war. Leamas remembers a dinner he and Karl had with Control, the head of the British Secret Service. Afterward, Karl introduced Leamas to his mistress, Elvira. Leamas didn't like Karl's affair with Elvira because it could be a security risk, but Karl trusted her. Back at the checkpoint, Leamas sees Karl pushing a bicycle. He's made it past the first checkpoint. The guards at the second checkpoint also allow Karl to pass. However, before Karl reaches the final checkpoint, a searchlight shines on him. Sirens go off. Karl quickly gets on his bicycle and tries to ride across. However, he is shot several times by guards and falls off the bike. Leamas hopes he's dead.


In Chapter 1, John le Carré sets the stage for the main theme of the novel, political manipulation. He does this by describing the scene at the checkpoint as a type of staged sporting event where various players act out their parts. For example, the author describes the searchlights as "casting theatrical beams." The demarcation line resembles the "base line of a tennis court." Also, the event has spectators. A crowd has gathered, resembling people watching with curiosity at a traffic accident. The two opponents in this sporting event are the communists in East Berlin and the democratic capitalists in West Berlin. Leamas is one of the players, a British agent working in West Berlin. He is like a sports player who knows his limited role on certain plays, but is unaware of his opponent's strategy. Because of this, Leamas doesn't know when one of his teammates, a spy named Karl Riemeck, will cross over from East Berlin. Indeed, Karl's mistress, Elvira, knows more about Karl's activities than Leamas does, which upsets him. Because of this, Leamas snaps at a policeman who asks how an East German agent named Mundt learned about Karl's crossing over. Leamas is angry because he has no answer. Thus, early on, Le Carré establishes Leamas's frustration about his own lack of control and knowledge and shows Leamas's being manipulated by forces beyond his control.

Leamas realizes that a vital strategy in winning at the game of espionage is deception. He remembers emphasizing to Karl the importance of knowing how to cheat and cover his tracks. However, some agents like Karl end up inadvertently cheating the side they work for by omitting important information. For example, Karl neglects to tell anyone that Elvira is his confidant. Deception, therefore, can become a habit or a way of life that may place their lives at risk. Perhaps these agents become so enamored of their own cleverness that they become overconfident. In any event, Karl's confiding in Elvira reminds Leamas that he can't even trust agents on his own side.

Le Carré introduces a major symbol in Chapter 1, the Berlin Wall. This wall represents how two opposing ideologies can create black-and-white situations by dividing the city in half and setting people against each other. The communists on one side of the wall feel they are superior and need to defeat their evil enemy on the other side of the wall, the democratic capitalists. The democratic capitalists feel the same way about the communists. The author stresses this black-and-white situation through this description of the wall: "East and west of the Wall lay ... a half-world of ruin, drawn in two-dimensions." The Berlin Wall sets up the deadly game between two righteous opponents that is the basis of the novel.

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