Wednesday, March 24, 2021

the last book I read

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré.

George Smiley is in a bit of a rut. He's in enforced early retirement from MI6 (colloquially known as "the Circus") after a botched mission involving an attempted rendezvous with a Russian double-agent in Czechoslovakia, which resulted in a Circus field agent getting a pretty substantial hot lead sandwich. It wasn't Smiley's project, but rather the brainchild of his superior and mentor Control; nevertheless its failure resulted in the disgrace not only of Control but of anyone perceived to be one of his close associates. 

Still, a chance to relax from the old spying game and spend a bit more time with the wife, I expect. Well, not exactly, as Smiley's wife Ann is chronically, serially and fairly publicly unfaithful to him. So he spends his time trying to ignore her infidelities (which she mainly has the decency to conduct elsewhere anyway), catching up on a bit of reading and occasionally mooching down to his club for dinner.

So it's probably something of a relief when he's contacted by someone from the government with a proposition for him: discreetly investigate the allegation that there is a Russian mole in a high-up position within the Circus itself. The Ministry has had a tip-off from maverick field agent Ricki Tarr that something rum is afoot - Tarr is a bit of a loose cannon, to say the least, but his story seems pretty convincing.

Smiley already knows that his former colleague Percy Alleline has succeeded Control as head of the Circus, and that part of the reason for his promotion was an apparently wildly successful project called Operation Witchcraft which involved the acquisition of sensitive Russian intelligence from an apparent KGB double-agent. But can the information be trusted? Has Alleline's ambition to secure his own position as Control's successor overridden his caution about accepting this stuff at face value?

Smiley decides to dig into both Operation Witchcraft and Operation Testify, the Czech mission which eventually cost Control his job. Unfortunately Control himself can't shed much light on anything as he died shortly after being ousted. Smiley enlists the help of Peter Guillam, a former close colleague and someone still within the Circus organisation, to discreetly acquire information for him which he no longer has access to.

It soon becomes apparent that Operation Testify was Control's attempt to acquire the name of the Circus mole; Control knew of his existence and had narrowed his identity down to one of five men, all in the Circus top ranks: Percy Alleline, Bill Haydon (known to be one of Ann's ex-lovers), Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase and Smiley himself, given the respective codenames Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poorman and Beggarman. Moreover it transpires that the Circus field agent, Jim Prideaux, who got ventilated when the operation was betrayed not only survived but was eventually spirited back to Britain, told to forget everything and found a job teaching at a boys' school. Smiley visits Jim and gets a full briefing on the events in Czechoslovakia, Jim's shooting and subsequent interrogation by the KGB, including the shadowy Karla, Smiley's Moscow opposite number and nemesis.

With some help from Tarr and Guillam, Smiley engineers a fake crisis to give the impression that the Russian double-agent's cover has been blown, in an attempt to flush out the Circus double-agent. Smiley waits at the safe house in the expectation that the Russian double-agent (in reality a triple-agent, or maybe that just makes him an agent again, I'm not sure) and the Circus mole will rendezvous there to discuss what to do next. Sure enough they do, and Smiley and Guillam collar the Circus mole, who turns out to be Bill Haydon. Haydon is held at a secure facility pending his handover to the Russians, but he never gets a chance to sample his new country's hospitality - Jim Prideaux, university friend and possible ex-lover of Haydon, finally in full knowledge of Haydon's betrayal of him before the Czech trip and that he was prepared to let Jim die rather than be exposed himself, pops a cap in Haydon's ass while he's out walking in the prison grounds.

I recall having a conversation with my father about le Carré back when I was a teenager (possibly prompted by my reading of The Little Drummer Girl) and him dismissively saying "oh, it's all just I knew that he knew that I knew that he knew". I mean, I can see what he was getting at, but it is an odd position to take for someone quite into twisty-turny detective fiction - Dad is a big Georges Simenon fan, for instance. Perhaps part of it, in the case of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in particular, is a failure to realise that while it's set in the wold of international espionage, it's really a whodunit in the same way as an Agatha Christie novel, just with the big reveal and associated explanations done in a dingy room in a London safe house rather than in the drawing room of Lord Muck's country mansion.

This is the third le Carré novel to feature on this list, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Our Kind Of Traitor (since filmed) being the other two. George Smiley plays an important but minor role in The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, published eleven years earlier and in which Smiley is some indeterminate number of years younger (his age in the various novels in which he features defies the normal rules of linear time as he always seems to be around sixty). The later novels The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley's People form a loose trilogy with this one. Of the ones I've read (a tiny percentage of the huge number le Carré wrote before his death last year) I'd say Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the best. The only "action" in the traditional sense is the dramatic events in Czechoslovakia, which are described only in retrospect near the end of the novel, but it still manages to be intensely gripping. The way it does this is only partly by the minute detail of espionage activities and tradecraft, but also more subtly by examining the things that motivate people to do what they do, especially when those things involve intense personal danger for little obvious reward, and nebulous ideas like "country" and "loyalty". 

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy has been adapted a few times, most famously the 1979 television series starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, and the 2011 film starring Gary Oldman. I was a bit young to remember the TV series, and in any case (as mentioned here) spent all of 1979 outside the UK. I do remember the 1982 adaptation (also starring Guinness) of Smiley's People, though, as my then-schoolmate Mungo was a precocious le Carré aficionado, probably via his father who was a senior civil servant and may well have been an actual spy for all I know. I did see the 2011 film when it came out and thought it was very good, in an authentically drab and glum and rainy 1970s sort of way. Slightly more tangentially le Carré's work was pretty clearly the inspiration for some Fry & Laurie sketches


The black rabbit said...

Talking of fathers and "The Little Drummer Girl"...
I vividly remember buying that *exact book* for my father as a birthday present in early April 1983.
I can remember where I bought it (WHSMiths on High Wycombe High Street) and I can even remember which shelf it was on (bottom shelf!) and the smell of the new book, weirdly enough.
I was 11 at the time.
Two weeks'paper round money it cost me - and the bastard didn't even thank me.

electrichalibut said...

Never do anything nice for anyone, least of all your own family, is the lesson there I think.