Six Degrees of Separation: from Like Water for Chocolate to The Spy Who Came In From The Cold

Six Degrees of Separation is a monthly link-up hosted by Kate at Books Are My Favourite and Best. Each month a book is chosen as a starting point and linked to six other books to form a chain. A book doesn’t need to be connected to all the other books on the list, only to the one next to it in the chain.

This month the chain begins begin with a book that Kate says people may not have discovered, were it not for the hugely popular movie version – Laura Esquivel’s Like Water for Chocolate. I hadn’t discovered it at all until now! But I see that it’s a ‘bestseller’, a book about passion and the magic of food (including recipes), a tale of family life in  Mexico.

Like Water for Chocolate

The first link in my chain is a book also set partly in Mexico:

The Lacuna

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver is the story of Harrison Shepherd, the son of a Mexican mother and an American father and it’s told through his diaries and letters together with genuine newspaper articles, although whether they reported truth or lies is questionable. As you can see from the cover swimming plays a part in this book. As a boy, Harrison, loved swimming and diving into a cave, which was only available at certain tides, a cave that was there one day and gone the next – a lacuna.

Swimming also features in Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie.

Evil Under the Sun (Hercule Poirot, #23)

Poirot is on holiday in Devon staying in a seaside hotel. It’s August, the sun is hot, people are enjoying themselves, swimming and sunbathing until Arlena is found dead – she’d been strangled.

The next book in my chain is also crime fiction  – Blue Heaven by C J Box.

Blue Heaven

This is a story set in North Idaho about two children, Annie and William who decide to go fishing without telling their mother, Monica, and witness a murder in the woods. One of the killers sees them and they run for their lives. It’s fast-paced and full of tension right to the end.

I chose Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie as the next link, a book that also has a colour in its title.

Half of a Yellow Sun

It’s based on the Nigeria-Biafra War of 1967 – 70. Focusing on the struggle between the north and the south, the Igbo, Yoruba and Hausa people, it brings home the horrors brought about by war, the ethnic, religious and racial divisions and the suffering that results.  It is also a novel about love and relationships, a beautiful and emotional book without being sentimental and factual without being boring.

Another book about war, but this one is non-fiction about a spy operation during World War Two – Operation Mincemeat by Ben Macintyre.

Operation Mincemeat: The True Spy Story That Changed the Course of World War II

It’s about the Allies’ deception plan in 1943, code-named Operation Mincemeat, which underpinned the invasion of Sicily. It was framed around a man who never was. I thought it was so far-fetched to be almost like reading a fictional spy story. I marvelled at the ingenuity of the minds of the plans’ originators and the daring it took to carry it out.

Operation Mincemeat led me to think about a fictional spy in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John Le Carré.

The Spy Who Came In from the Cold

This is set in the Cold War period in the 1960s and tells the story of Alex Leamas’s final assignment. It’s a dark, tense book and quite short, but very complicated; a story  full of secrecy, manipulation, of human frailty and its duplicitous nature.

What a journey! My chain moves through time and place – from Mexico to Devon, North Idaho, Nigeria, Sicily and Berlin. It encompasses fiction and non-fiction and takes in several wars. All, except for the book that starts the chain, are books I’ve read and enjoyed. Six Degrees of Separation is always fascinating to compile and I’m always surprised at where it goes and where it ends up. Who would have thought that a book about family life in Mexico would end up linked to a spy novel about the Cold War?

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

I’ve recently read John le Carré’s biography by Adam Sisman and inevitably it made me want to read le Carré’s books. I decided to start with his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, first published in 1963.


a gripping story of love and betrayal at the height of the Cold War. This Penguin Modern Classics edition includes an afterword by the author and an introduction by William Boyd, author of Any Human Heart.

Alex Leamas is tired. It’s the 1960s, he’s been out in the cold for years, spying in the shadow of the Berlin Wall for his British masters. He has seen too many good agents murdered for their troubles. Now Control wants to bring him in at last – but only after one final assignment. He must travel deep into the heart of Communist Germany and betray his country, a job that he will do with his usual cynical professionalism. But when George Smiley tries to help a young woman Leamas has befriended, Leamas’s mission may prove to be the worst thing he could ever have done. In le Carré’s breakthrough work of 1963, the spy story is reborn as a gritty and terrible tale of men who are caught up in politics beyond their imagining.

My view:

This is a dark, tense book and quite short, just 252 pages. It’s complicated and although the language le Carré uses is clear and straight forward at times I wasn’t sure just what was going on, what lay behind the scenes – just what was Leamas up to, amidst the various deceptions and subterfuges? George Smiley does appear briefly in the book, but is there throughout in that he is masterminding Leamas’ mission.

Back from Berlin where he had seen his last agent killed whilst trying to cross the Berlin Wall, Leamas is apparently no longer useful. He goes to seed whilst working out his contact in the Banking Section, transforming into a drunken wreck no longer of use to the Secret Services, left without any money or a job until he finds work as a helper in a library for Psychical Research. Here he meets Liz Gold, who then unwittingly gets drawn into Smiley’s plan.

The atmosphere throughout is of secrecy, manipulation, of human frailty and its duplicitous nature. As the German, Fiedler says for a secret agent:

… deception is first a matter of self-defence. He must protect himself not only from without, but also from within, and against the most natural of impulses; though he earns a fortune, his role may forbid him the use of a razor, though he  be erudite, it can befall him to mumble nothing but banalities; though he be an affectionate husband and father, he must under all circumstances withhold himself from those in whom he should naturally confide. (page 143)

By the end of the book Leamas is in despair as his mission seems to have failed. Liz can’t work out which side he is on and he says:

What do you think spies are: priests, saints, martyrs? They’re a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors too, yes; pansies, sadists and drunkards, people who play cowboys and Indians to brighten their rotten lives. (page 243)

I hate it; I hate it all; I’m tired. But it’s the world, it’s mankind that’s gone mad. We’re a tiny price to pay … but everywhere’s the same, people cheated and misled, whole lives thrown away, people shot and in prison, whole groups and classes of men, written off for nothing. (pages 244-5)

But then again did his mission fail? This is one of those books that I find so hard to write about without giving away too much of the plot – the introduction by William Boyd begins with this statement, ‘New readers are advised that this Introduction makes details of the plot explicit.‘ And indeed it does. I was glad I read it after reading the book, though, as it also gives an interpretation that I found helpful – in particular just what Boyd thought was meant by ‘coming in from the cold‘.

This fulfils the “Broken Object” category on the Silver Vintage Scavenger Hunt card.