Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John le Carré)

Maria bought me John le Carré’s The Spy Who Came In From the Cold as a gift a few years ago, somewhat out of the blue, after she’d heard it described on NPR and thought it sounded like something I would like. I knew le Carré wrote spy novels, but that was about it, so I suppose I was expecting a tightly plotted genre novel of some kind, perhaps featuring microfilm and silencers.

So I was pleasantly surprised when I read it to find it was much more than a spy novel. Like Hitchcock, le Carré has a gift for turning taking the raw material of a genre plot and turning it into a story of great resonance and meaning, more than the sum of its parts. Certainly it had little in common with the series of Connery-era James Bond movies we’d recently run through at the time I read Spy. The spies of Le Carré, who worked in the British MI6 during the Cold War, were more mundanely human than Bond, their work more about planning and deception and elaborate, chess-like strategies than about parachuting down into exotic locations to infiltrate an evil organization’s volcano headquarters, sometimes with more in common with their supposed enemies than with their own countrymen. In the course of elaborately and endlessly deceiving their opponents about their intentions and the kind of person they were, they were just as likely to wind up deceiving their friends and themselves. And meanwhile, the great machinery of the war used them and threw them away with a cold relentlessness.

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is every bit as good as The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. Based on the Kim Philby case, it follows George Smiley—a minor character in Spy, who has since been forcibly retired—as he attempts to track down an alleged mole in the ranks of the British intelligence service. But, of course, it’s about much more than that, touching on how the double lives their jobs require reflects the double lives at the heart of most relationships, and how the trust at the heart of those relationships is both necessary and, in some ways, impossible.

Le Carré is as good as he was on Spy at manipulating point of view in key places to keep the suspense taut while simultaneously showing us different sides of the main characters. He does stay closer to the characters here than in Spy—which kept even Alec Leamas, the main character, at arm’s length—which gives the story a warmer and more intimate feeling. And he’s capable of remarkable turns of a phrase to bring even minor characters to life:

“We budget for a hundred and twenty.” With numbers, with facts of all sorts, Lacon never faltered. They were the gold he worked with, wrested from the grey bureaucratic earth.

Lovely—he could say not another word about Lacon, and you would feel you knew him.

(Although he does sometimes lose me with his Britishness, which I suppose is hardly his fault:

In the scullery Smiley had once more checked his thoroughfare, shoved some deck-chairs aside, and pinned a string to the mangle to guide him because he saw badly in the dark.


Tinker, I’m pleased to say, is the first book in what turned into a trilogy. And I’m thoroughly looking forward to The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.

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