Smiley's People by John le Carré - review by Charles Palliser

Charles Palliser

Smiley With The Knyf

Smiley's People


Hodder & Stoughton 329pp. £5.95 order from our bookshop

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

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