by John le Carre
400 pages, Penguin
Review by Pat Black
I have completely spoiled things for myself.
Driven mad by curiosity, I picked up the DVD of the old Sir Alec Guinness TV series a few weeks ago. Now I’ve gone the whole hog and read the book. Watching the new movie is going to be like chancing upon an episode of Friends which you realise that you’ve not only seen before, but whose very lines are tap-dancing on the tip of your tongue.
Don’t worry, though. I can keep a secret.
Small wonder the 1970s television adaptation of John le Carre’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was such a success. Guinness could read out a shopping list and make it interesting. Following on from that pedigree, it’s not surprising that the big screen version has drawn such fantastic actors as Gary Oldman, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch and Tom Hardy. It’s a very talky novel, and any adaptation must be an actor’s dream – every role delivers a chance to shine.
It’s a purr-off. Not so much TTSS as tttttttsssssssss.
I find it curious that John le Carre and Ian Fleming both served with British intelligence (albeit in slightly different timelines) and yet wrote such different fictions about spying. Whereas Fleming wrote escapist fantasy, le Carre’s world is very real. This novel is set in a grey, drab mid-1970s Britain, and the clunking analogue universe is fascinating in its own right. It’s a world of ledgers, buff-coloured folders and box files; strictly low-fi tradecraft, with intercepted mail, microdots, tapped phones and torn-off tickertape presented as the height of technical espionage. You half expect to see spies plugging Atari video game consoles into red telephone booths.
Although it’s set only 35 years ago, it seems like the Dark Ages compared to the high-speed data revolution we’re all part of today – and that’s part of the charm. To have set any adaptation of this book in the present day would have been to render it a joke.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is loosely based on some high-profile defections from the west to the east during the Cold War, most notably the colossal black eye delivered by Kim Philby (which, rumour has it, compromised le Carre’s career). This book sees the Circus (one of many cute euphemisms the book uses – see also “lamplighters”, “babysitters” “nurseries” and “scalphunters”) infiltrated by a mole working for the Soviet spymaster known only as Karla. The information this mole provides leads to a disastrous incident in the former Czechoslovakia in which Jim Prideaux, one of the Circus’s top field men, is ambushed and shot while on a mission to sniff the bad guy out.
On top of that, there’s some information which comes in via Ricki Tarr, a loose cannon in the service who seduces a Russian agent’s wife, and in the process confirms the existence of the mole, known only by the code-name Gerald.
Enter George Smiley. Le Carre’s hero may be unique; he’s not a fist-fighter or an assassin, and certainly no James Bond-esque sex panther. Short, dumpy, in his sixties and overweight, he has gone into retirement following the humiliation and then death of his former master at the Circus, Control, only to be called back into the service to uncover the mole.
Smiley’s an Oxford don, and the academic lifestyle seems to suit him better than the clandestine one he’s left behind. He’s bookish, meek in the confrontation and a cuckold to boot. Although he appears to have punched above his weight in marrying the aristocratic Ann, she seems to have slept with just about everyone Smiley knows, and many more he doesn’t. Few characters feel shy about reminding him of this. These paramours are even code-named “cousins”. Though each reference to them must come as a slap in the face to Smiley as he carries out his mission, he simply allows the slights to bounce off him, betraying no reaction.
So he’s hardly a rogue. But Smiley is a superspy. His methods are ponderous, mostly related to reading old files, interviewing people and drawing conjectures and conclusions, but we know almost instinctively that he would make a very dangerous adversary. You wouldn’t last long under cross-examination with Smiley, if you’ve something to hide. His weapon isn’t a gun or a knife or a planted bomb, but his intellect.
Yep – there’s some tense ledger-reading scenes here, to be sure. And yet, having sat through any number of spy movies with jerkily-edited shoot-outs, multiple double-crosses and kung fu fight scenes, I found the slow pace and cloistered atmosphere of TTSS refreshing. It’s different, and – one quality le Carre shares with Ian Fleming – beautifully written.
There are few action scenes, and most of the bloodshed is realised in flashback, but this book is never dull. I particularly relished each dialogue between Smiley and the suspects. These scenes were electrifying as performed by Sir Alec Guinness and such great tomcats of the UK stage and screen as Michael Jayston, Ian Richardson and Hywel Bennett on the TV show. I can’t wait to see how these exchanges play out at the cinema.
So - who is it, then? Roy Bland, the working class boy and “first red brick don in the Circus”, a man of known left-wing leanings? Or is it Bill Haydon, charming bastard and head of the London unit, who has a very intimate history with Ann? Or Toby Esterhase, the Hungarian head of the “lamplighters” who can speak many languages, but none perfectly? Or is it Percy Alleline, the new and ambitious head of the service with his love of all things American?
Maybe it’s someone outwith the main circle of suspects – it couldn’t be Peter Guillam, Smiley’s right-hand man and enforcer, could it? Or does the lovely Ann – always referenced, seldom seen – have anything to do with it, beyond humping everyone in sight?
Only Smiley has the brains to answer all the questions. And slowly, but surely - like the tortoise in the fable - you know he will get there.