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Book Review: Smiley’s People, by John Le Carré

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Perhaps it comes from growing up a James Bond fan, but I had trouble getting into John Le Carré's Smiley's People as a spy novel. There were no flying cars, no laser watches, and very little action of any kind. Than again, 007 is about as far from actual espionage as Jack Sparrow is from a Somali gunman, and that's what this novel is about. Le Carré strips away the romantic glamor of a "spy novel" and deals with the heart of espionage, people.

George Smiley is a retired British spy master, brought back into the fray when one of his former contacts is assassinated. He is supposed to do a simple clean up of the situation, more to make sure the service's hands are clean than anything else. Smiley does a thorough job in his investigation, however, and finds out that "The General" had become involved in something greater than just old war stories. Ignoring the new rules of a weakened MI6, Smiley returns to the Cold War for one final face-off with his Russian counterpart Karla.

Photo by Flickr user cogdog

 Much of the book is consumed by talking, storytelling. There are long passages, chapters long, where one character reveals or reviews their knowledge for Smiley's benefit. He works over his own information, revisiting old case files, and interviews other people extensively. He talks to former associates and colleagues, some of whom he had sworn never to see again. In doing so, he pieces together the story which will lead to the final showdown with Karla, a shadowy figure at best who seems to have outlasted Smiley in the spy business.

At times the dialogue feels tedious, as some characters attempt to hide or restrict information. Likewise, Smiley's careful investigation, moving from one source to another, starts to feel a little monotonous after awhile. But, if you are trying to write a real spy novel, especially of the Cold War, there is simply no other way to proceed. Much of intelligence gathering, like other over-imagined professions, is a slow, laborious process. This verisimilitude was intriguing in its own right, but also left me begging for a faster pace more often than not.

Smiley is a central character in several of Le Carré's novels, so it is no surprise that the most detailed characterization work centers on George. Retired from MI6 for a second time, he easily slips back into his old patterns of thought and behavior. This is not a truly triumphant return, however. The service has changed. There are few people working who remember Smiley or the contributions he made. They are taking espionage in a new direction, ignoring the lessons of the past. The old allies are corroded, and it is a painful effort for George to muster them for one last mission. At the heart of it all is the discovery of a human weakness in the seemingly impenetrable Karla. For Smiley, this is justice, as Karla once used George's great weakness — his philandering wife Ann — to turn Smiley's trusted colleague into a traitor.

Rather than reveling in the key to his nemesis' destruction, Smiley seems disturbed. Though it never turns into an explicit discussion, the book can be read as an exploration of the symbiotic relationship between hero and villain. Karla is the Russian reflection of Smiley. There are several incidents, pointed out by secondary characters, where Karla makes a move seemingly identical to what Smiley would have done in the same position. George fervently denies the similarities, and yet he has an almost a protective reaction on first unraveling Karla's secret. Indeed, when there is no choice left but to use this vulnerability to take Karla down, Smiley does so with a tense, melancholic air. By ending the threat with which only he can deal, Smiley is also terminating his own usefulness. It's Batman without the Joker, Optimus Prime without Megatron.

This is not, in my opinion, Le Carré's best work. It is not as compact or precise as The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, and the plot has become a little dated 20 years past the Berlin Wall's demolition. Nevertheless, the ending is satisfying and it would be a worthwhile read for anyone interested in fictional characters that are more than simple stereotypes.

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About Chris Bancells

  • Jimarten

    The Smiley trilogy is a uniquely highbrow set of novels about cold war espionage and even Le Carre himself could not do anything as good afterwards. Though the top-drawer storytelling aspects had been equalled by a few others (eg Helen MacInnes) the ‘moral’, that espionage corrupts everyone it touches and that only those ‘naive’ human traits which remain untainted by conspiracy constitute any kind of saving grace for those who are involved, is unique to Le Carre. I think it is a little churlish to criticise the results, since, like war poetry, it is a form of fiction which could only have been written more or less at the time by someone who had been an ‘insider’. We need to be grateful to Le Carre for rising to the occasion. The BBC adaptations of ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ and ‘Smiley’s People’ are two of the best drama series ever produced by the BBC, thanks to a superb cast, script, and directorial policy in both cases. Both are nearly six hours in length and neither are a minute too long! They made proper TV dramas in those days, none better than these.