No admirer of John le Carré’s spy fiction can believe that international espionage is glamorous or exciting in the way that lesser practitioners of the genre have represented it. He has shown vividly what it is: a bureaucratic operation to accumulate and sift through huge amounts of trivial information. So the essential qualities called for are not brilliance or courage, but rather the virtues that George Smiley possesses – doggedness, thoroughness, and the patience required to watch for days, weeks, or years until the other side makes a small mistake.
Of course, there are daring operations in le Carre’s novels, but they are either impromptu, single-handed ventures which go wrong (like Ricki Tarr’s in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier: Spy) or they are meticulously planned exercises carried out for specific ends – in short, the best kind of bureaucracy in action. If there is a role for individual brilliance – for intuition and creativity – rather than methodical teamwork, it is only within very narrow limits. This is important, for le Carré’s novels dramatise a conflict that looks like intuition-as-success against bureaucracy-as-incompetence: crucial operations are scrapped by the top brass in order to save effort, money, or, under the traitor Bill Haydon in Tinker and The Honourable Schoolboy, Soviet agents. However, the true opposition is between good and bad bureaucracy: between Smiley and most of the rest.
A large part of the appeal of le Carré’s fiction derives from his fascination with the bureaucratic institution, with the way in which the intelligence service, like any office or department, is a self-contained world with its own ethos, jokes, mythology, and, above all, dialect. He has refined for his maleficent mandarins of Cambridge Circus a wittily stylised dialogue: laconic, edgy, elliptical. Another of the books’ delights is the colourfulness of the euphemistic terminology of the trade – vicars, postmen, housekeepers, lamplighters, and babysitters – which conceals not merely the nastiness but also the dullness of the reality.
However, these linguistic pleasures and this insider knowledge are already familiar from the earlier Smiley books. So, indeed, are other elements for this novel is extensively self-plagiaristic, and more than the structure recalls Tinker: just as the Soviet mole at the top of the Circus hierarchy was hunted down and unmasked by Smiley in the earlier novel, so in Smiley’s People le Carré’s unlikely hero painstakingly works his way towards the revelation of hidden and equally explosive facts. As always in this author’s fiction, there is a paradox in the way the novels convey the tediousness of intelligence work and yet at their best, as in Tinker or this new book, are gripping as narratives – though with certain reservations. Le Carré is adept at constructing a plot which engages and challenges the reader intellectually as he watches the facts of a concealed situation being slowly and laboriously pieced together.
The novel begins with two apparently unrelated incidents – though the alert reader will begin to spot the connections: first, a Russian woman exiled in Paris is accosted by Soviet intelligence agents and given an extraordinary piece of news; secondly, a young man on a ferry near Hamburg effects, under conditions of the most elaborate security, the collection of a mysterious object from an unknown contact. Then, just as in Tinker, Smiley is called out of retirement (though in this case honourable), and asked to investigate discreetly a potentially embarrassing incident – the murder on Hampstead Heath of an old Estonian emigre who has worked for the Circus in the past and who seems to have been trying to reach his former control, Smiley himself, with an important message when he is killed. Precisely as in Tinker, Smiley goes to Oxford to ask Connie, a Soviet expert dismissed from the service, to help him by drawing on her capacious memory for information about a Russian diplomat whom she realised was an agent but was instructed by the high-ups to forget about. This is, like its close equivalent in the other novel, one of the best scenes of the book because it is about the essence of bureaucracy: personal animosity and conflict ritualised through an impersonal structure. Connie with her mimicry of her ex-bosses and the verbal inventiveness of her venom, is a marvellous portrait of the frustrated office politician still, in defeat, absorbed by departmental rivalries and obsessed by lost battles.
Smiley slowly and grippingly accumulates the clues he needs to uncover eventually the hidden mystery which two men have given their lives to bring to light. However, with that revelation a characteristic weakness of le Carré’s fiction manifests itself: for all the documentary realism of his accounts of intelligence methods, the underlying situation which the novels turn out to be about is often very implausible, so that there is a disparity between the mundane credibility of the way Smiley goes about solving the mystery and the gross improbabilities on which that mystery depends. Of course, the revelation has to be surprising, but it should not strain credulity.
In Tinker it was just possible to believe – and it has become easier, God knows, in recent months – that there could be a double-agent at the top of the intelligence service (though le Carre’s treatment of the mole’s motives at the end is so perfunctory that the unmasking loses much of its impact), but the implausibility at the heart of People is much greater. It would be unfair to reveal the climactic revelation of the book, but it connects with a motif that has already appeared in the Smiley books: he has a grudge against the head of Soviet intelligence, Karla, which dates back to an encounter in India 20 years before when the Russian successfully called his bluff. This has been exacerbated because Karla instructed Bill Heydon (see Tinker) to have an affair with Smiley’s wife, so that his suspicions of Haydon would be discounted as personal malice.
During the course of this latest novel Smiley comes to discover that Karla is himself vulnerable, for the mystery which the plot finally unravels concerns his private life. Despite his cruelty and cold-bloodedness, Karla, it emerges, has intense feelings for one person which expose him to pressure – particularly since he has chosen, for rather unconvincing reasons, to send that person to the West.
The problem is not simply that all this is pretty implausible, but that the reader recognises that the very realities which the book takes pains to establish are being manipulated in the manner of the kind of historical novel in which the very ordinary hero keeps bumping into famous personages at the moment when momentous events are about to take place. This matters since le Carré claims to be telling us the exact truth, however unpleasant or prosodic. But this weakness shows up something more serious, for it’s almost as if the author gives Smiley and Karla a personal feud in order to avoid giving them an ideological one. His bleak literary realism, based on a defiant ‘this is how sordid counter-espionage really is’, claims as its justification an equivalent political and moral realism – ‘this is how grim the East-West realities are’. So at the denouement of the novel the physical and moral sordidness of the Berlin Wall and its blitzed, desolate surroundings is intended to symbolise both the squalor of the struggle between the two secret services and its rightness from the Western point of view. But our recognition of the evil of the other side shouldn’t allow us to sidestep the central question, which surely is: how far precisely can we in the free world proceed against such an antagonist before we destroy what we are demanding?
For a moment it looks as though this is going to be raised by Smiley’s discovery that Karla can be blackmailed, that he now has a weapon in his hands which he can use against his old enemy. However, the plot is constructed in such a way that Smiley is never faced with a situation in which he has to be ruthless. When he has located the person who can be used against Karla he does not, for example, organise a kidnapping in order to pressurise his victim more effectively. The simple blackmail in which he engages is venial enough, especially when compared with the way the Russians behave in this novel who at one point attempt to murder an innocent old woman. Moreover, le Carré seems to take for granted not only that our side really does behave better than theirs, but that anyway the evil of the Soviet system justifies the suspension of moral censure of its opponents. This is implied by his sentimentality towards the exiled Baltic organisations dedicated to overthrowing the Soviet government which figures largely in the novel’s action, and this sentimentality rests on the assumption that the mere fact that one is motivated by hatred of the USSR proves one’s moral purity.
A central weakness of the novel arises from the author’s indulgence in sentimentality. The problem is Smiley, who is revealing himself in successive books to be really rather a bore. Part of the trouble is that he is presented through a technique similar to Hemingway’s use of a reticent sentimentality: because the author on the whole neither tells us what his central character is thinking nor comments on his actions, he is granted a privileged exemption from irony. So, like Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises, he remains an observer of the follies and vices of others who is never compromised himself and whose stoicism in the face of the flagrant infidelities of the woman he loves creates in the reader a pressure of undirected sympathy which, lacking a specific object, becomes a continuous demand for indulgence towards him – in short, sentimentality.
As in Hemingway, again, pride in and mastery of one’s craft is the measure of one’s ultimate worth, particularly if one’s private life is a disaster, and so le Carré sentimentalises about Smiley’s talents as a spy-catcher. At one point Toby Esterhase, in a kind of proleptic chorus singing his chief’s praises for the masterly way he interrogates a potential defector, tells us that Smiley is brilliantly impersonating a dull, time-serving official with no sense of humour. The trouble is that this is exactly how he appears to the reader all the time. Smiley is above humour and neither jokes nor perceives irony. Indeed his very name means that there is one thing at least that he cannot do: he may produce a laugh – as he does twice in this novel, though one of them is forced in the interests of reassuring an informant – but apart from that he can only grin and he doesn’t even do that.
Smiley’s sole basis of conduct is his loyalty to the institution he has spent his life working for – and it could almost be any institution. And yet it’s more complicated than that: it’s not the dual bureaucracy of Cambridge Circus with its interfering politicians, blundering civil servants, and unreliable agents on the ground that has his allegiance. Rather, it’s his faith in an idealised institution latent within the fallen reality and embodied in himself and a chosen few that inspires Smiley, and this is the only sense in which he is an idealist. Consequently, the true subject of the Smiley novels is the duel not between two ideologies but between two bureaucracies, and in this novel the more effective one that wins is ours, at last, while the other – hitherto so all-conqueringly ruthless – is defeated by a personal adventure in the style of Ricki Tarr. The ironies of this outcome fail to resonate without a clearer and more exacting moral structure than the book offers.
Smiley’s People is a more skillful exploitation of the territory le Carré has pioneered and made peculiarly his own, a work that is more knowing and more plausible in its details than Graham Green’s recent incursion, The Human Factor. The comparison is inevitable and instructive: for all its polished brilliance and readability, le Carré’s book lacks the moral complexity and the urgent humanity of that less brittle and much more moving novel.