Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré

by Sunita

I’ve been slowly rereading all the Smiley novels by John le Carré. I first started reading them in college, so decades ago, and I reread them all a couple of times after that, but my more recent le Carré reading has been limited to the post-Smiley books, e.g., The Tailor of Panama, A Perfect Spy, and The Night Manager. When he brought back Smiley in A Legacy of Spies a couple of years ago, I realized that I didn’t want to read it until I had Smiley firmly fixed in my head again. I don’t like glomming authors anymore because it makes me too aware of their tics and lessens my reading pleasure. So Legacy languishes on my bookshelf while I make my way through the decades.

I took a good-sized break between A Small Town in Germany and TTSS, but then once I picked up the latter I read it in less than a week. My memory of reading it is patchy. I remembered the Big Reveal, of course, and Smiley and Ann’s estrangement, and Connie Sachs stuck in my head. But despite having seen the miniseries twice and the recent film, that was about it. In earlier readings, including rereads, I would often get lost in the puzzles. The first time I read it I was speeding through to find out what happened. The next times were slower, but I would still miss things.

This time, though, I had the almost perfect reading experience. I had a sense of familiarity as every character appeared on the stage, and I followed every twist and turn. It’s a fantastic story. Le Carré based it on the Cambridge Five, and his mole, Gerald, very much resembles them. We know from almost the beginning that Gerald is someone high up in the Circus (the spy agency, named that because it’s located at Cambridge Circus in London). The question is, which one of the handful of top men is he? Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Beggarman, or someone else?

The story combines le Carré’s standard tone of world-weary, post-empire decay with a cracking spy story, one that is even more tense because the spy is inside the building. Very little happens on-page, but it’s a page turner. How rare is that? Almost everything the reader learns is conveyed through internal monologues of recollection, spoken monologues in meetings among people who know each other, or through conventional narrative. Most of the settings are either rooms in offices, seedy hotels and inns, or safe houses. Occasionally someone comes to Smiley’s home. And that’s it. The big reveal that there is a mole happens in the private home of one of the Circus higher-ups. That scene is one that has been reproduced in books, films and TV series that have followed TTSS (Ricki Tarr made me think of a character in the excellent TV miniseries State of Play).

On top of the spy story, which alone would have made a memorable novel, the book evokes the feel of London in the 1970s. It’s a period of economic hardship, labor strife, and the further diminishment of Britain’s role in the world. The Cold War is still structural international relations but there isn’t the immediate sense of menace that permeates the 1960s novels, most notably The Spy Who Came In From the Cold. The result is an almost (but not quite) elegy to a bygone age. It’s not romantic, in part because Smiley is so resolutely not romantic.

Smiley is frequently described as the anti-James Bond, just as le Carré is the anti-Ian Fleming. And that’s accurate: he’s short, fat, expensively but generally badly dressed, and near-sighted. He’s continually cuckolded by his glamorous aristocratic wife, Ann, who leaves him and then comes back, over and over. At the start of this novel he’s been fired from the Circus. His method of investigation involves minute, detailed scrutiny of archival material. When he loses his temper you notice because it seems so out of character, and he always seems to regret it.

He’s also one of the most brilliant fictional characters ever created. He’s fantastically intelligent and shrewd, but he’s not one of the Big Winners of the world. He’s just intensely necessary if the world is going to keep from going to hell in a handbasket. Which, come to think of it, may be why he is the perfect character for that age and for ours.