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December 9th, 2012

From Sunday, 25 November to Wednesday, 5 December, I read John le Carré's Smiley's People (NY: Bantam Books [a division of Random House, Inc.], 1979 [mass market paperback Bantam edition published in December 1980]; ISBN: 0-553-1410-6; 388 pps.), which is the third book in the Karla Trilogy, following Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and The Honourable Schoolboy (1977).
cover to John le Carre's Smiley's People

The conclusion to the Karla Trilogy (preceded by Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [1974] and The Honourable Schoolboy [1977]; all three books were collected in an omnibus as The Quest for Karla in 1982), Smiley's People is the swan song of the unassuming "fat spy" George Smiley -- a retired highly-placed official of the "Circus" (MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service) -- who is reluctantly taken out of mothballs by the sneering and supercilious Circus administrators (Oliver Lacon and Lauder Strickland) when a high-ranking Soviet defector is found murdered in Hampstead Heath, London. As Smiley is able to persuade his former superiors that the defector was murdered by agents of the head of "Moscow Centre's" (the KGB's) super-secretive Thirteenth Directorate known only as "Karla" -- essentially Smiley's opposite number among the Russians -- they grudgingly give him the funds and space to run a counter-operation in the hopes of capturing, or, at minimum, definitively removing Karla.

I found Smiley's People the weakest book of the trilogy. While it starts out promisingly (if somewhat bewilderingly) enough -- the point of view soon shifts to Smiley in his spartan, bachelor existence (his aristocratic and promiscuous wife, Ann, who played a pivotal role in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, has left, but not divorced him) and holds on him for much of the book -- a late, blessedly temporary, shift to the POV of a young woman nearly sank the narrative for me; clearly, whatever le Carre's strengths as a writer are, writing from the POV of a young woman is not one of them. The story is saved by resuming its focus on Smiley, but the authorial misstep is severe enough and late enough in the book to leave an indelible, and unwelcome, impression.

As with the previous books, most of the action is off-screen, although, as with the trilogy's predecessors, that doesn't keep Smiley's People from being gripping and suspenseful if one is not utterly addicted to conventional action thriller antics. I especially enjoyed the meeting between Smiley and his former bosses, and their apologias for and grousings about the current British administration (a leftist one [given the timeframe of the events herein, Britain had a Labour government led by James Callaghan, and was likely operating under the Lib-Lab Pact of 1977] with little use for the Cold War status quo of the foreign intelligence service, although not one so unrealistic as to totally disenfranchise or defund it), and the sophistry they (chiefly Lacon; in Chapter 4, le Carré observes, "In Lacon's world, direct questions were the height of bad taste but direct answers were worse"; p. 49) employ to put daylight between themselves and personal responsibility for giving Smiley his head to work a possible coup against the Soviets; as with the late, lamented British TV series The Sandbaggers and its stepchild, Greg Rucka's Queen & Country series of comic books and novels, and indeed in Len Deighton's three trilogies starring Bernard Samson (the Game, Set and Match, Hook, Line and Sinker, and Faith, Hope and Charity trilogies), le Carré posits a covert universe where the greatest dangers are from one's own side, and the hardest fought and most significant battles play out in the dispiriting and featureless rooms where one meets with one's own superiors. Such a mindset and presentation are clearly not for every taste; but for those who are of a similar bent or who are persuadable, le Carré offers a rich, layered, and deep (and deeply fraught) narrative where the personal and the political are inextricably (and surprisingly) entwined, where one is never sure of the ground beneath, ahead, or behind him, and where one is never quite certain that the game was, or is, worth the candle.

Also in keeping with the previous volumes, le Carré salts Smiley's People with neat turns of phrase, passages of poetry (Rupert Brooke; W.H. Auden), and sly nods to genre antecedents -- one of Smiley's cover identities is Standfast (a nod to the title of an espionage-cum-adventure novel by John Buchan, the third novel featuring Richard Hannay, Mr Standfast; of course, Buchan took his title from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress); glancing references are dropped to The Secret Sharer (Chapter 12, p. 151), the title of a novella by Joseph Conrad, whose novels The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes may be regarded as prototypes of the modern espionage novel (indeed, Conrad was an influence on both Graham Greene and le Carré) and Army of Shadows (Chapter 6, p. 73), an excellent 1969 movie about the French resistance to the Nazi occupation written and directed by Jean-Pierre Melville, based on the autobiographical 1943 novel by Joseph Kessel -- and other little "Easter eggs" (another of Smiley's cover identities is Barraclough, which could reference either Geoffrey Barraclough, a British historian whose specialties were medieval and German history [Smiley is a German philologist; le Carré notes, in Chapter 12, that "German was Smiley's second language, and sometimes his first"; p. 155], or Roy Barraclough, a comic actor best known for playing a "shifty, lugubrious landlord" on Coronation Street; Smiley was laboring on a monograph on the baroque poet Martin Opitz when the events of the novel were set in motion [Chapter 2; pps. 25-6], and reads a volume of Adam Olearius when he goes out to dinner, the better to isolate himself from the importuning of acquaintances [p. 33]).

But, underlying these rather sterile enjoyments are the not inconsiderable human touches: some key supporting characters from the previous books make welcome return engagements, chiefly Russian specialist Connie Sachs (who was apparently very loosely based on Milicent Bagot) and Toby Esterhase (who nearly steals the show every time he opens his mouth here); while George's big meeting with his estranged wife is bleakly poignant in a classically understated British way (Ann tells him, "'I'm a comedian, George....I need a straight man. I need you.'"; Chapter 20, p. 295). It's also easily as gripping as the dialogues more directly dealing with the novel's multiple interlocking plots.

Though there is internal evidence that Smiley's People takes place in 1978 (as, for example, on p. 187 [Chapter 14]), a mere year prior to its date of publication, it has the feeling of a historical novel not entirely due to the fact that I read it over three decades after it was first published, given the "new brooms" that the "Lib-Lab" government are taking to their intelligence services, and the role that revolutionaries (some of them White Russian, or tsarist) exiled from the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain countries -- revolutionaries disregarded and sidelined by both the Circus and "the Cousins" (i.e., the CIA) -- play in the plot. Lacon et al make it abundantly clear to Smiley that they consider all of the skulduggery surrounding the "quest for Karla" old, if not actually irrelevant, business; it would be a mistake, however, to dismiss the situations depicted in Smiley's People as a mere entertainment, with no relevance to our present times.

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As I never posted my reviews of the preceding books in the trilogy here, for reasons that remain obscure even to myself, I thought that I would post them here now, behind the cut.

In a world of perpetual doubt, reassurances never came amiss.Collapse )

*Cross-posted to my LibraryThing account.




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