Espionage is the service we’d all quite like to play a part in. Its glamour is perhaps more desirable to most than the secrecy of the work itself. Exotic locations, jet-setting lifestyle, variety of work; I can’t be the only Englishman to dream of a life of sharp-suits, secret identities and an endless line of beautiful women, surely?
George Smiley, a British Intelligence officer entrusted with the impossible job of spying on the spies, will tell of an espionage service of a very different nature. Smiley: our hero, our interrogator, our sympathetic Circus retiree who is but a couple of years from pensioner-hood, is as similar to fiction’s most famous British spy- James Bond- as the glacier is to a volcanic furnace. The word is there’s a mole in the British Intelligence service (the Circus) and despite his retirement, it seems Smiley is the only one capable of sniffing him out.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy takes us back to the post- Second World War years of tense international relations. One war has finished and another begins (or resumes, depending on how you look at it); the Cold War is the back-drop for this compelling tale of secret intelligence. While the secret service theme is undeniable, author John le Carre (an ex intelligence serviceman himself) plunges us into a world where Britannia- or England, depending on which character you speak to- no longer rules the waves; a world where its intelligence must come to terms with this admission and try and find itself a new role, one as subordinate to the USA and Russia.
Le Carre’s novel is about the people who inhabit these secret spaces, and their reluctance to accept Britain’s decline as a world power. Jim Prideaux is perhaps the novels staunchest defender of Britain, or England, should I say despite the rather Gallic-sounding surname. Doing his best to create a life outside of the Circus, and free from their preying little birds, Jim fails to take to one nickname given to him by the school-children where he now teaches:
“Yet Goulash did not satisfy them either. It lacked the hint of strength contained. It took no account of Jim’s passionate Englishness…But England was his love; when it came down to it, no one suffered for her”
Without knowing much more about him, it is impossible to say where or from whom Jim gets his patriotism. In the Circus Jim was a field man in the Soviet satellite states spending many years abroad, yet he refuses to loosen his belief that England is at the centre of the world:
“To the west, America, he said, full of greedy fools fouling up their inheritance. To the east, China-Russia, he drew no distinction: boiler suits, prison camps and a damn long march to nowhere. In the middle…”
Only, England (or Britain if you’re not Jim) has fallen and Smiley is proof of this, not least for the fact that he is drafted in post-retirement to snuff out the mole in a disjointed Circus. And he is perfectly cast in this role: mild-mannered, unassuming, ageing and despite his on-going personal issues (an ex-wife who he believes may have had an affair with a member of the circus) he remains determined to keep his chin up, his back straight and his upper lip as stiff as a stale prawn sandwich in his pursuit of the mole: the perfect embodiment of post-imperial England.
In similar style, the way in which le Carre reveals this fascinating insight into Whitehall and its secret service games keeps the reader firmly engaged. It’s retrospective narrative allows its characters to ceaselessly transport us back in time and lets us play along with the allusion that we’re (as reader) objectively coming along for the ride; either knelt behind the trees within earshot of Prideaux’s caravan, or stood on the other side of the wall while Smiley painstakingly interviews a lead, ear pressed gently to the door.
In this way, we’re not simply hearing the final, government approved version of events long after said events have convened. The reader is well and truly bound up in the research and processes undertaken by Smiley who approaches the task from the beginning and with that English pride that is so hanging in the balance. We’re made to question every lead, every story, every anecdote, every claim and we’re meant to be confused by them. Luckily we accompany one of the experts but the road to the truth is not without its uncertainty as we see through le Carre’s clever use of flashbacks, especially the tense meeting between Smiley and the novels villain known simply as ‘Karla’; a Russian spy believed to be at the centre of the books devilry.
To his peers, Smiley remains calm and most importantly he listens, making him the perfect choice as investigator. But as reader we gain insight into the inner-workings of Smiley’s mind and discover that his cool exterior shields a complex web of self-doubt and fear. Just like his country in these uncertain times, he must keep a clear head in a daunting effort to find a new role in a changing world.