Thursday, September 22, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John Le Carre

Rating: 3 & ½ Stars
The last Le Carre novel that I read was ‘The Constant Gardener’. Much as I admired the deep intelligence and wounded conscience that pervaded the book, I remember feeling a little at a disadvantage in the first few chapters; a sensation of having to hop, skip, and jump in an attempt to keep pace with a plot that seemed to assume that the reader was already clued in on key events and characters. To the author’s credit, he filled in the details in due time. With Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I felt the same initial mystification, but despite his elusive opening acts Le Carre is a reliable guide in the shadowy world of international espionage.
George Smiley defeats the Hollywood concept of what a spy should be. Mild-mannered, unfailingly courteous, and cuckolded in his personal life, Smiley suffers no delusions of machismo. His career suffered collateral damage from a botched operation instigated by his former boss, and he has been put out to pasture by the British Intelligence service. That changes when former colleagues come calling on him for assistance. Apparently, his maligned ex-boss was on to something after all. Ricki Tarr, an agent once recruited by Smiley turns up compelling evidence that the highest levels of the Intelligence Service has been infiltrated by a spy, code-named 'Gerald', working for the Soviet Union. Smiley is assigned the job of ferreting out the mole, and cleaning house.
The Cold War which dominated so many decades of the past century already seems far away, so one might wonder if this book, published in 1974, qualifies as historical fiction. Le Carre seems to prefer the term ‘informed fantasy’, and certainly he should know. He was recruited by the British Intelligence Service fresh out of university, and worked for both MI5 and then, MI6 till 1964, where like George Smiley, he ran agents and conducted interrogations, among other things. The mole of the novel, ‘Gerald’ is based on real-life British agent, ‘Kim’ Philby who passed secrets to the Russians, before officially defecting to the Soviet Union in 1963.
Not only is this is a book shorn of glamor, Le Carre shows a tangible ambiguity about the moral assertions of the Cold War players. The world of the spies on either side is a grubby one, based on duplicity and treachery. If the ‘hero’ is a quietly methodical man focused on the job at hand, the ‘bad guys’ on the other side are not noticeably more flamboyant.
 What I’m trying to say is, those readers who look forward to jet-setting spies scoring non-stop action either in the form of bodacious babes or cartoonish super-villains might find this a slow read. What appealed to me about the book is the tensile intelligence that seems to be such a marked characteristic of Le Carre’s writing, but the spies’ world he portrays is a humdrum one; ambition, political maneuvering, greed, gossip, backstabbing…are things much better where you work? The one small difference being, of course, that here, the backstabbing can be quite literal.

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