by John le Carre
468 pages, Sceptre
Review by Pat Black
“I used to love those double-double games,” says an old intelligence researcher in Smiley’s People. “All of life was there.”
Smiley’s People is the final part of John Le Carre’s “Karla” trilogy, concluding the long-term, long-distance battle of wits between British spymaster George Smiley and his Soviet nemesis, the head of the Thirteenth Directorate of Intelligence in Moscow – the man with the curiously feminine codename.
Smiley, the hero of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and the reluctant leader of the decimated British secret service in The Honourable Schoolboy, is once again in retirement at the start of this novel. Old, fat, owlish, short-sighted, with the air of a thoroughly repressed Oxford don, Smiley is the anti-Bond. It’s difficult to imagine him cocking a gun without pursing his lips in distaste, and it’s almost as difficult to think of him slipping between the sheets with pretty young things. Indeed, his wife, Ann, is quite famously unfaithful, having proven to be Smiley’s great weakness and the entry point, pun intended, for Karla’s mole in Tinker Tailor.
Smiley might well have been a librarian in another life, burrowed deep in a section of dusty, forgotten books in dead languages which no-one ever, ever borrows. Indeed, there’s a hint that this is precisely what he has done, dedicating his attention to abstruse academic interests and idling towards the grave in a dingy house in London, while his wife whoops it up with ballet dancers and actors down in their country pile in Cornwall.
But, as in Tinker Tailor, Smiley is brought back to do what he does best. An Estonian general Smiley once acted as case officer for has been found in Hampstead Heath with his face turned into raw mince by Soviet bullets. The old general, Vladimir, had been active of late, seemingly chasing ghosts, before being assassinated. The current incumbents of the Circus had written the general off as a crank, a relic from the early days of the Cold War, paying a heavy price for a cry for attention. Smiley’s superiors at the Circus and Whitehall want him to bury the case. But Smiley, in his inimitable way, smells a rat.
Earlier, in Paris, a Soviet defector is approached by an amateurish Russian agent, offering her a chance to be reunited with her daughter, left behind following defection. The woman begins to suspect that the person who is to be spirited out of Russia is not in fact her daughter. She, too, sniffs a rat, and decides to get in touch with a contact in the espionage world she has long left behind: an old Estonian general, now living in London.
To describe the rest of the plot in any kind of haste would be to do it a disservice. Smiley’s People pays its threads out slowly. Although you’ve got plenty of time to slow down and take a good look at what’s happening, the tangle of contacts, aliases, double agents and double-crosses can take a while to unravel. It’s a ponderous book, but I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. At the expense of repeating myself, it’s this considered, measured quality that I enjoyed the most about the Karla trilogy. To me it was unusual and therefore addictive, this slow-burning tension, this perfectly-plotted pathway, that finally leads us to a confrontation between the two heavyweights.
As before, the contrast between “tradecraft” in a novel written in 1981 and what we see in today’s espionage fiction is stark. I can just about remember the early 1980s, but this era’s buttonhole photography, radio microphones and hair-across-the-crack-in-the-door-style security arrangements, as described by Le Carre, seems like the Stone Age. Today’s surveillance and intelligence gathering culture is science fiction in comparison, all of it underpinned by that great esoteric language, the electric Sanskrit of machine code.
One particular section where operatives strive to capture a photo of a Russian agent embracing his mistress seems quaint in a world where people are using tiny hand-held computers to take pictures of themselves, and the world around them, constantly.
And then there’s CCTV to consider, automatic number plate recognition, computer passwords, keystroke mirroring, internet banking and mobile phone technology which can tell security services precisely where you are and where you’ve been, should they be minded to check. Smiley and Co’s trails of breadcrumbs and gingerbread houses look like fun in comparison to our time’s cold, brutal, technical world of instant recognition and retribution.
Smiley’s Englishness is his blessing as well as his curse. He got my dander up good and early, remarking on Circus operative Strickland’s Scottishness, his “Aberdonian brogue”, as a shorthand way of saying that he is brash, obnoxious and aggressive. That’s the kind of observation that I would tend to peg out on the same line as racism.
Smiley wonders why it is that Scotsmen are drawn to the world of espionage. What’s it to you, George? I might wonder the same of moneyed English public school boys and positions of power, their cane-crossed buttocks nestled in hot seats all across Westminster and Whitehall. But, that slip aside, Smiley is a compelling character with a solid moral core. His deep-rooted snobbery could be upsetting in any other context except national security, but his mannered priggishness and protestant work ethic serve him well.
Tough times call for tough measures, though. Ultimately, Smiley the white knight is forced to use the kind of tactics his nemesis is famous for in order to bring him to account. This is portrayed as a defeat, but personally, I think Karla has caused enough chaos in Smiley’s life to merit a bit of George’s marvellous medicine. Endearingly, Smiley retains enough of his poise and moral certainty to know that resorting to the tactics of the brigand is just not cricket, old bean.
This is perhaps the book’s most ludicrous aspect, as far-fetched as underwater bases and satellite-swallowing spacecraft in James Bond; the notion that the men of the Circus are somehow morally superior to their counterparts in Moscow.
Perhaps the concept of western “freedom” carried more weight in 1981, an ideal not quite so corrupted by casino capitalism, neoliberal abuses of power and geopolitical sabre-rattling. Perhaps having an enemy firmly fixed in one location and one political bracket gave us some kind of moral compass which we’ve been lacking since the end of the Cold War.
Smiley finally confronts his one-woman sexual earthquake of a wife in this book, although the kiss-off is done in an oblique, restrained way. This is one time when you realise the real world would have been far harsher on flighty Ann – she would probably have had to answer to treason charges, given her behaviour with the mole in Tinker Tailor. This is done, we feel, to cut away Smiley’s ties with his private life and matters of the heart, to focus all his efforts on bringing Karla down.
Because Karla has made a mistake – the oldest one in history – and Smiley is all over it like Bank Holiday rain. With one mild twitch of a stalk of wheat, the old man spreads his wings over the fields like a golden-eyed owl in the night.
In Tinker Tailor, The Honourable Schoolboy and now Smiley’s People, it is always women who underpin the motivations of the principals, opening the door to their betrayal or downfall. In Tinker Tailor, Smiley’s weak point is Ann – a factor exploited over a period of years by Karla after he stole Smiley’s cigarette lighter, which bears a simple inscription from his wife. In The Honourable Schoolboy, Jerry Westerby is doomed the minute he meets his scarlet woman in the east. In this novel, it’s Karla’s turn to have his heart turned inside out, his emotions leaving a trail as clear and bright as a streamer of blood in the open sea.
The portrayal of women is far less sexist to modern eyes than in the first two books; indeed, in Ostrakova, and in Estonian information mule Willem’s wife, there is an attempt to get into women’s minds that doesn’t paint them as silly, dependent mares, giggling strumpets or flat-shoed harridans - although the depiction of mentally ill “Alexandra”, the key to the whole affair, had a nasty whiff of the Victorian loony in the attic.
With his usual understated cunning and fine-honed intelligence, Smiley closes in on his quarry. Pleasingly, he is not just restricted to ledgers, libraries and sealed reports in this book, taking on the role of active fieldman in order to unpick the knots. There are moments of suspense and the odd bout of violence, but this is more about Smiley covering his tracks, and uncovering those of people who went before him in Switzerland, Hamburg and Paris, than car chases or gun battles. For the most part, the book is a series of tense conversations, but Smiley’s sabbatical out in the field shifts the story into a higher gear.
Likeable sidekick and man of action Peter Guillam makes a brief appearance, an easier bedfellow for James Bond than Smiley. Guillam is about fifty, has a wife half his age, drives a fast car and likes the buzz of the job. Here, at last, is a spy fantasy figure we can relate to. Toby Esterhase, a Hungarian agent, is also called back into action in Smiley’s service, and provides vital assistance as the noose is placed round Karla’s neck.
A problem you may run into is that the sumptuous 1983 TV adaptation, starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, follows the book pretty much to the letter. There are even lines of dialogue which gave me a flashback to the show. So if, like me, you knew the Karla story through the DVDs first, then there will be no surprises for you in Smiley’s People.
In turn, though, the old TV show did something the novel could not. It revealed to me Alec Guinness’s acting secret: react to everything as if someone has just farted. Watch his face, next time, and tell me I’m wrong.
It’s the best novel in the trilogy. But what a contast to today’s world – even the fictional one. Compare the “Moscow rules” Le Carre follows to bring us his story, set just 30-odd years ago, with the microchip tempest of 24, or Spooks, with their lightning-strike editing, instant global connectivity and flying saucer technology. In another 30 years our spy stories and the landscape they operate in will look completely different, again, and it’s today’s technology that will seem creaky in comparison.
By that time, we might even have a geographically and ideologically fixed enemy with which to cross swords, to help us delude ourselves that we are in some way morally superior.