Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré
Published by: The Franklin Library
Publication Date: 1974
Format: Hardcover, 355 Pages
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
When you're a spymaster for the Circus you don't really think about what your retirement will be like, yet that's what George Smiley has been forced to ponder for the last year. Forced out because of a botched operation in Czechoslovakia he spends his days waiting for his faithless wife to return to him. He has come to terms with the fact he'll never know what exactly happened, how Control botched things up so badly that Jim Prideaux got two bullets in his back and all their networks were blown. Yet fate as something different in store for Smiley. The Circus might be under new management, but there's now evidence that perhaps Operation Testify was brought down by a mole. Ricki Tarr is also on the outs with the Circus. Ricki was in Hong Kong to follow a member of the Soviet Trade Delegation code named Boris and ended up falling for Boris' wife, Irina. She was willing to defect for Ricki, but when Ricki contacted the Circus she was swept back to Moscow. Ricki was shaken, he knew this was proof of a mole and went to ground himself. He's come out of hiding to help bring down the mole. But the small enclave of agents working with Under Secretary Oliver Lacon agree, it's George Smiley who must run the operation. He's been called back into action and he must dig into the Hong Kong events, he must look into Czechoslovakia, he must use all the spycraft he's ever learned to smoke out a traitor among his own former colleagues and save the Circus from disaster.
Picking up a book that many people view as a Classic with a capital "C" is daunting. There are those books that legitimately deserve that classification... and there are those that, in my mind, don't. I truthfully don't think I have a prejudice against certain modern classics, but maybe I do... because if it's modern and about war, I just tune out. A Farewell to Arms, Catch-22, both modern classics that I just couldn't stand. Now along comes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and I'm torn. Because it's a classic of spy fiction, it's about the cold war, and well, it just left me cold. Yes, it's a clever and probably more realistic alternative to the image of Bond, but if this is a more truthful representation of the Cold War era perhaps that era isn't for me. It is rare for me to admit, but this book, about 95% of it just left me baffled. If was confusing and at times completely incomprehensible. Every so often I'd get into a good groove, I'd be like, yeah, I'm finally in the book, I totally know what's going on, then I'd put down the book for two seconds and when I picked it back up again it's like all the words had rearranged themselves on the pages and I had no idea what I had read, who anyone was, or what the hell was going on. At the close of the book it's almost like everything you read doesn't matter, it was a foregone conclusion that Smiley would catch the mole, and the mole doesn't justify himself, explain himself, or anything. So why exactly did I read this book again?
I read this book because it's THE spy book to read. Though I find it interesting that after reading it I find all these caveats from people complaining about Carré overwriting his characters and having tedious descriptions of all those who people his pages. I'd say that half that is right. Carré overwrites. He loves minutiae and getting into Smiley digging deep into files for what feels like hundreds of pages. And the thing is, it's not badly written, it's just badly plotted, like he's very purposefully trying to throw the reader off track and kind of forgets that was his purpose and he has now fallen down a rabbit hole and is writing gibberish. Nicely written gibberish, occasionally beautiful, but still gibberish. Whereas for his characters? I could really actually do with a bit more description. Because I have no way of telling them apart. Their names all kind of blended together and sometimes they were referred to by first names sometimes by last, and yet there's no mental image of what they look like to differentiate them. And seriously, one of the characters is named Bland!?! Yeah, cause that's SO going to make me remember him. I think that perhaps this is one of those books that would be better as a re-read because you supposedly know the characters, but the thing is I still don't know who these characters are. I figured out the mole in like five minutes and the rest was just hundreds of pages of sitting around literally reading about Smiley sitting around.
The reason the mole isn't that hard to spot is because Carré based this book on his own experiences, in particular the revelation of the Cambridge Five, Philby, Maclean, Burgess, Blunt, and Cairncross. I know quite a bit about this from watching the Cambridge Spies miniseries as well as all the documentaries on the DVD set which were actually far more interesting. So knowing this history going in it was just about matching the ill-defined character to the real life counterpart. Of course later in the book they are all given codenames, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Poor Man, and Beggarman. But that doesn't matter because obviously the mole is the one most like Philby, aka "Tailor." In fact Tailor is the only one really described in detail of the group, so it's not that much of a leap to deduce him as the mole. The only real question that needs answering in this story is if the mole was working alone or as part of a group, like the Cambridge Five. I think it's a bit of a cop-out that Tailor was working alone, but in a way that used the rest of his group and kind of made them look complicit. Having the taint of Communisim be more deep-seated, more wide spread would have made Smiley's task harder. It wouldn't have been just one word, but several. After all that palaver to end with just one? Seems kind of wasteful.
What was fascinating about reading this book in the current world climate is that this book is still very relevant. Until the last few years, and in particular since the election, I think the vast majority would have said that the Cold War ended with the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. While now we see that it's never ended, just went black ops, underground. So all this spycraft was still ongoing. This isn't a book about 1974 and the events before, this is a book about now. This book is so relevant it's actually a little spooky. To think that everything we had kind of relegated in our mind to being something of the past to realize it's of the now... Carré knows what he's writing about, even if it's not that linear or succinct. There's a reason why The Night Manager resonated so much with viewers, and it's not just because of Tom Hiddleston's ass. In the labyrinth of Smiley's world and all the dealing and double-dealing that goes on, there was one thing that really struck me. That sometimes a country would welcome a defector with open arms, promise them safety, security, a new life, not just for their secrets. There was a hidden agenda. Yes, a vast majority would be taken in, some played back into their country, but some, some were just taken in for bargaining down the road. Some were then sold to other countries, some even sold back to the country they had defected from. That just scares the shit out of me. To be promised this new life only to be passed along.
But what I found most startling was that at the root of it, the mole's reason for turning against his country wasn't a hatred for Britain, it was a hatred for the United States. Tailor clearly saw Britain's position on the world stage and realized that they could never bring down the United States, he saw their ineffectualness. Only the USSR could destroy America, so he should align himself with them in order to achieve his goal. While I fully admit, especially right now, America isn't a popular country, I don't quite get why Tailor felt this way. His reveal as the mole and his summation of why was given so few pages that his hatred of America felt a bit like a slap in the face. I just wanted the why. Why did he come to this conclusion personally. America is barely mentioned in the book. A few of the spies are in Washington from time to time but years previously, and Karla, the Russian spymatser, ran a failed radio scheme in San Francisco, but that is the only real mention of America. So why should Tailor, who was, let's face it, a lover of the finer things, including lots of pretty men and women, and wasn't logically the traitor aside from the fact he aligned with Philby's profile, a strident hater of all things American? I think this is what will stick with me most. Not the rambling and meandering of Carré but the xenophobic hatred of America that comes out of nowhere at the last second. Just why!?!
Wednesday, February 22, 2017
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy by John le Carré