Thus we have Alec Leamas, 50 years old, once a husband and father but now wholly alone, running agents in East Germany from his post in West Berlin and watching them drop, one by one, by orders of a merciless foe, Hans-Dieter Mundt, “second man in the Abteilung [Secret Service] and effective head of operations.” Mundt is all ice: “There was a coldness about him, a rigorous self-sufficiency which perfectly equipped him for the business of murder. Mundt was a very hard man.” By contrast there is Fiedler, subordinate to Mundt, a “slim, neat man, quite young, smooth-faced,” a “rarity in the Abteilung — he took no part in its intrigues, seemed content to live in Mundt’s shadow without prospect of promotion,” a Jew in a place only recently removed from Naziism. An elaborate scheme is cooked up at headquarters in London — the “Circus,” as it is known in le Carre’s work — to plant Leamas in East Germany as a defector and to engineer Mundt’s murder; as everyone knows by now, it backfires in unexpected and heartbreaking ways.
When Leamas reaches East Germany, he comes under Fiedler’s supervision, and gradually a human relationship develops between them. Fiedler is a believer, a committed communist, while Leamas is a skeptic, but there is common ground, as Fiedler understands: “We’re all the same, you know,” he says, “that’s the joke.” It is the “joke” that recurs throughout le Carre’s fiction, in which spies scheming against one another have more in common with each other than with the people they supposedly are trying to protect. Thus when Leamas becomes involved with Liz Gold, a young and naive British communist, she reaches out to him across a divide he cannot cross. He has more in common with Fiedler, and perhaps with Mundt, than he does with her. When in the end he does reach out to her, it is too late.