“He had that art, from miles and miles of secret life, of listening at the front of his mind; of letting the primary incidents unroll directly before him while another, quite separate faculty wrestled with their historical connection.”
Fueled by the promise of a new film version of John le Carré’s novel Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I requested a review copy from netgalley. I went through a le Carré phase some years ago, but Gary Oldman as Smiley brought back waves of nostalgia for the reading pleasure I once exacted from le Carré. Would I be as impressed by Smiley’s world the second time around? And the answer to that question is a resounding: YES!
John Le Carré (aka David John Moore Cornwall) is best known for his spy novels, and I should add that he worked for some years, in the very juicy 50s and 60s, for MI5 and MI6 before his extremely successful writing career. His professional background must be taken into account for authenticity leaps off the pages. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the first novel in the Karla Trilogy; the other novels are The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. The novel contains jargon specific to the Circus (MI6), and you might want to acquaint yourself with the Circus lexicon before reading the book. There’s a nice explanation on Wikipedia, but the page also reveals key elements of the plot.
But back to Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy–a slight deviation from a children’s nursery rhyme, and what a perfect title that is. Watching James Bond films may create the illusion that being a spy is great escapist fun. After all, where else would you get those fast cars, incredible gadgets, and sexy, voluptuous women? But le Carré shows us that the spy game is deadly serious, and no one takes it more seriously than Smiley–the protagonist of the novel.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy finds George Smiley in forced retirement from MI6, and he’s not happy about it. Put out to a rather bleak ‘pasture’, Smiley is depressed and bored. It doesn’t help that he and his wife, Ann are separated–the only traces left of her in his life are the bills he keeps receiving for her extravagant flings and bank notification that she’s grabbing most of his pension. Just as he’s ready to accept that he should sell his London home and move to the country, he’s contacted by someone from his past, Peter Guillam, the head of the Scalphunters–a division in MI6 which deals with kidnapping, murder, and blackmail.
Smiley was eased out the Circus along with the head man, known as Control, the year before. Both men were seen as dinosaurs and considered “as close as thieves” who could no longer cope with the demands of the shifting espionage world. Consequently the reins of power changed hands– Smiley and a few others loyal to Control (who’s now dead of cancer) were booted out, and the Circus is now run by Percy Alleline, and his deputies Bill Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase. Here’s Guillam explaining the radical changes at the Circus:
In your day, the Circus ran itself by regions. Africa, satellites, Russia, China, South East Asia, you name it: each region was commanded by its own juju man; Control sat in heaven and held the strings. Remember?
It strikes a distant chord
Well, today everything operational is under one hat. It’s called London Station. Regions are out, lateralism is in. Bill Haydon’s Commander London Station, Roy Bland’s his number two, Toby Esterhase runs between them like a poodle. They’re a service within a service. They share their own secrets and don’t mix with the proles. It makes us more secure.
Smiley is drawn back to the spy world when Guillam takes him to meet Oliver Lacon, a civil service officer responsible for the Intelligence services. Lacon has arranged for Smiley to have a secret meeting with agent Ricki Tarr–a rather shifty figure who tells a story of a passionate affair with Irina, the wife of a Russian agent. In the throes of passion, ready to defect and terrified of the consequences, she revealed that she had an enormous secret regarding the identity of a mole, known as “Gerald [was] a high functionary in the Circus.” Although Irina was set to defect and arrangements were made for a special plane to whisk her to Britain, something went wrong. She was drugged and whisked off to Moscow instead. Realising that his cover’s been blown, and fearing for his life, Tarr subsequently dropped out of sight. Now he’s resurfaced to tell his tale to Lacon and Smiley.
This information sends Smiley on the hunt for the mole–and really he’s picking up where he left off as both he and an increasingly paranoid Control suspected a mole in British Intelligence after the failure of a critical operation in Czechoslovakia. Smiley never stoops to resort to “I-told-you-so” recriminations as he is all too aware that precious time has been lost, and now that he’s outside the Circus, it will be no easy task to unmask the mole. As Lacon notes:
We can’t move. We can’t investigate because all the instruments of enquiry are in the Circus’s hands, perhaps in the mole Gerald’s. We can’t watch, or listen, or open mail. To do any one of those things would require the resources of Esterhase’s lamplighters, and Esterhase like anyone else must be suspect. We can’t interrogate; we can’t take steps to limit a particular person’s access to delicate secrets. To do any of these things would be to run the risk of alarming the mole. It’s the oldest question of all, George. Who can spy on the spies?
So it’s Smiley’s job to hunt for the mole… Smiley discovers that one of the biggest elements at the Circus is source Merlin: a secret highly-funded operation in which intelligence information is seeping from the Soviet Union, and he suspects that this information is deliberately created to obfuscate British Intelligence.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is an incredibly well crafted novel that explores the increasingly uneasy world at the Circus and also Smiley’s intense mental world as he hides out at a drab hotel which becomes his “operational headquarters.” While the world of the global spy networks has a sort of sordid glamour–replete with intrigue, false identities and dangerous missions, the most fantastic aspects of this novel reveal the labyrinths of intrigues at MI6 and the human capacity to deceive :
The more identities a man has, the more they express the person they conceal. The fifty-year-old who knocks five years off his age. The married man who calls himself a bachelor; the fatherless man who gives himself two children … Or the interrogator who projects himself into the life of a man who does not speak. Few men can resist expressing their appetites when they are making a fantasy about themselves.
There’s a marvellous intro from le Carré in this edition in which he describes the extremely fine line of the role of the double agent:
For while on one side the secret traitor will be doing his damnedest to frustrate the efforts of hos own service, on the other he will be building himself a successful career in it, providing it with the coups and the grace-notes that it needs to justify its existence, and generally passing himself off as a capable and trustworthy fellow, a good man on a dark night.
Le Carré’s novel was published in 1974, and it’s impossible to overlook the influence of the scandalous affair of the so-called Cambridge Spies, so it’s not surprising that in the intro, Le Carré also goes on to discuss Blake and Philby–admitting to “a particular dislike for Philby, and an unnatural sympathy for Blake.” Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is not fluff, and it’s not a particularly light or easy book to read, so be prepared to concentrate. The author’s depiction of this other shady world creates an intensity that’s difficult to forget.