The passing of John Le Carre struck me more than I had realised. His stories brought together my love for history and literature, and spoke volumes about the era they were based in: the famed Cold War.
As a self-proclaimed history nerd, I find it hard not to look back at the decisions of the past and see how they have shaped the world today.
History is perhaps best understood through the lives of the people that have lived it, and what better way to get a glimpse into those lives than through the characters created by Le Carre and other Cold War authors whose stories show us why that era impacted so much more than just the decisions made in government offices. Here are some of the stories that humanised a heavily politicised decade for generations to come.
George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
Perhaps one of Le Carre’s most famous novels, if not the most, Tinker Tailor is just one in a series of stories detailing beloved character and British spy, George Smiley. Most readers’ first thought when Smiley is introduced is how he is too unassuming to be a conventional hero.
At its heart, Le Carre’s portrayal of Smiley’s character is perhaps a reflection of the underhanded nature of the times as well. Most people know that spying was a key part of governments on both sides of the Iron Curtain during the Cold War, but with academia, data and stats, it’s easy to forget that the same people who carried out those activities were real people too.
Smiley’s downfall at work ends up being much closer to home and while the novel leaves you in suspense till the end (I read it twice because I wanted to really grasp the essence of it)—the intersection of personal and political is brutally chilling.
Utz in Utz
Bruce Chatwin’s novel Utz is an interesting one. Based on the life of a man obsessed with collecting porcelain figurines, Chatwin’s novel depicts Utz’s life through the eyes of a narrator whose character rarely knew Utz himself. Yet even through that distance it’s clear that there’s a complexity to Utz’s seemingly simple obsession. Or perhaps it’s the nature of the times that complicates simple lives.
Living in Prague where such art collections aren’t allowed under communist rule, Utz has to twist his stories to justify his beloved collection. But in all his eccentricities, what strikes you most is his love-hate relationship with travelling to France. The idea of the “liberated West” turns out to be better than the reality for him and yet he’s stuck between two worlds unable to fully commit to either.
It is perhaps in Utz’s own unhappiness and confusion that we perhaps begin to see through the binary narrative of West and East—good and bad—divided clearly by the Iron Curtain that we have always been told, begin to falter.
Sabina in An Unexpected Lightness of Being
For many reasons, this book is one of my absolute favourites. The prevalent idea of kitsch is one of them. Throughout the book the characters toy with this concept that is defined by Kundera as “the absolute denial of s**t” and is meant to be the ignorance of negative outcomes or consequences in life.
In many ways it is an attack on the Western concepts of happiness and security that were championed in contrast to the hard persecuted life of the Communist East. But through Sabina, who proclaims “it is kitsch that is my enemy, not communism” we see her kitsch follow her through Prague and to Switzerland as she is unable to get rid of it no matter how hard she tries.
Kitsch attacks this very idea of a perfect life, or a perfectly happy way to live that governments in both East and West tried to impose. What’s attacked most obviously is the capitalist image of a perfect life, but interestingly enough it’s not done in comparison to communism.
By using Sabina and her own unhappiness as a mouthpiece, Kundera relies on his characters' lived experiences to bind concepts like kitsch together universally, reminding us that man made borders stand little chance against the shared experiences of humanity.
The Narrator in Music of A Life
Based in Russia, Makine’s Music of A Life follows two unnamed narrators and develops a story within a story as one man narrates his life to another. His identity has no name, and over the course of his narration, he reveals that he has also impersonated others over the course of his life—most of which was spent running.
In leaving his characters unnamed perhaps Makine was speaking to a larger human experience. The intersection of political and personal within the Cold War meant no-one could escape. Music of A Life politicised what was meant to be an ordinary life led by a young musician who suddenly gets caught up in the snare of the Russian government. He impersonates a dead soldier, and falls in love with a general’s daughter, and both those images bring that intersection to life even more vividly.
These books are but a small collection of the art and literature inspired by and created within the years of the Cold War. As Oscar Wilde said, “Life imitates art” and perhaps we would do well to turn to stories like these to inspire our perceptions of history.
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