Title: Smiley’s People
Author: John le Carré
Le Carré, John (1980). Smiley’s People. New York: Knopf
PZ4.L4526 Sn 1980
Date Posted: December 30, 2016
Review by Michael Wood
For anyone who is tired of life,” wrote Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scout Movement, “the thrilling life of a spy should be the very finest recuperator.” It seems unlikely that much actual recruiting takes place along these breezy lines, but certainly most fictional spies confirm the drift of the prescription. James Bond thrives on his license to kill, and in John Buchan as in Len Deighton we meet world-weary fellows who need danger and conspiracy to keep their nerves in working order. John le Carré, alias David Cornwell, sometime master at Eton and member of the British Foreign Service, set out a while ago to correct the picture. His glum, deceived heroes are not tired of life, they are tired of spying. They are actors who cannot leave their play, prisoners of a world without coincidence, and the cold they want to come in from is their own studied inhumanity.
Even so, there are plenty of thrills in le Carré’s books. Smiley’s People, his ninth novel and one in which all his considerable skills are in evidence, opens in Paris, where a dumpy Russian woman is approached by a sleazy Soviet official. Her abandoned daughter can now join her in exile. But when she looks at the girl’s photographs sent from Moscow, she can’t shake off her sense of the lifelessness of the face. “If they had photographed a corpse to get that picture,” she thinks, “I would not be surprised.” Perhaps they have. At any rate, it becomes clear that the girl they wish to send to France with her daughter’s name is not her daughter. Soon after, in London, an old man is found on Hampstead Heath with his face blown away. George Smiley arrives to view the corpse and pick up the pieces of the puzzle.
Smiley, a plump, myopic, worried and lonely officer of British Intelligence, is a calculated answer to James Bond. He drives badly, doesn’t fight, has scarcely any gadgets and, far from collecting beautiful women, has a remorselessly unfaithful wife. He is a donnish type, a man who gave up Oxford for his clandestine career. Le Carré compares him to an archeologist, and says that, for Smiley’s part at least, “the file was the truth, and all the rest a mere extravagance until it was matched and fitted to the record.” No other agent in fiction spends a tenth of Smiley’s time at his desk, where he riffles through dossiers and reports, “deep in his reading,” as le Carré puts it, looking for the telltale discrepancy buried in those reams of paper. Smiley is the spy as detective and scholar, and made his first appearances in le Carré’s first two novels, which were both murder mysteries: He was glimpsed on the fringes of The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and The Looking Glass War, was fished out of retirement for Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, became caretaker head of the crippled British Secret Service in The Honourable Schoolboy, and now, in Smiley’s People, is off the shelf again.
Le Carré’s recent novels have portrayed, with a great deal of detail and diligently evoked atmosphere, two distinct worlds of espionage: Smileys world in London, a domain of desks and files and intrigues and research, an awkward corner in the corridors of Anglo-American power; and the world of the active agent, the field, the exposed and haunted spot that might be anywhere from Phnom Penh to Prague to a hideout in rural England. “A desk is a dangerous place from which to watch the world,” le Carré says, but he means it’s a place that invites dangerous mistakes; the material dangers are usually elsewhere. Yet Smiley is not always behind his desk. He knows the field too, has lived his hunted days in enemy territory, and he knows that files and records can be rigged and that the truth, incomplete, unsatisfactory but substantial, is often to be found only in the world away from Whitehall.
In Smiley’s People, Smiley works both worlds, is both detective and agent at risk. I won’t disclose the oblique, slow-moving plot, except to say that a trail of murder and camouflage leads Smiley to Hamburg and Paris and Berne, and that the stakes are especially high for him, since his old archenemy, the daunting mastermind in charge of the Thirteenth Directorate of Russian Intelligence, appears to have made an uncharacteristic slip. Smiley’s boss in London jokingly refers to Holmes and Moriarty at Reichenbach Falls, but even Smiley himself hears “the drum-beat of his own past, summoning him to one last effort to externalise and resolve the conflict he had lived by.” That’s a touch too literary, sounding more like le Carré’s problem than Smiley’s, and Smiley’s next image catches a little more of the case: “It was just possible, against all the odds, that he had been given, in late age, a chance to return to the rained-out contests of his life and play them after all.” He hides a crucial piece of evidence in his Oxford English Dictionary under Y for Yesterday.
There is a lot of nostalgia among le Carré’s spies. They hark back to World War II, or even the Cold War, when people at least thought they know who their enemies were. But, of course, the nostalgia serves to underline the pain and near-pointlessness of the peacetime trade. The British blackmail a bank official, who is then tortured and killed by the opposition for talking. What is gained, what information is worth that man’s life or his agony? Smiley is fond of talking about service and gratitude and the opportunity to pay. “Trouble is, sport,” a battered field agent thinks, “the paying is actually done by the other poor sods.” At odd moments, le Carré drops into simplicity or cynicism on this score. The Russians are monsters after all, because they don’t care about killing and we do. Or: there is nothing to choose between us, “we are the no-men of this no-man’s land.” More often he depicts, with subtle and complicated sympathy, the moral murkiness of the whole business. Smiley and his people are fighting for decency, but there is more blood on their hands than they or anyone else care to contemplate. They are beleaguered, outdated professionals, the last cowboys of secrecy. They have lost their purpose, and are left only with a job.
In some ways, no doubt, this picture of the spy is as unreal as Baden-Powell’s, but the dilemma it points to is real enough, and when a popular novelist is as good as le Carré we need to ask, perhaps, not what he knows but what it is we go to him for. Le Carré’s spies are certainly plausible in their behavior, and no one else has suggested so convincingly what spying might be like as a job. A cover, for example, is not a disguise, but a reality: It is not a matter of a false mustache and a phony passport. When Alec Leamas, in The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, is supposed to be drunk and disreputable, he is drunk and disreputable, nothing less will do, nothing less will deceive the watchful eyes of the enemy. “Smiley was acting himself,” we read in a later book, “but more so.” But then, this already lifts us into fiction. The spy represents one of the stories we might tell about ourselves: true, but tangled in lies.
This is le Carré’s special turf. We need him less for his know-how about espionage, I think, than for his skill in orchestrating the many varieties of betrayal. Defectors, false defectors, faithless friends, perfidious enemies, deceivers who are themselves deceived all these figures appear in le Carré and converge on the double agent, who brings betrayal to a final pitch of perfection. Christ had only 12 disciples, a character remarks in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, “and one of them was a double.” In the same novel, a senior officer of British Intelligence turns out, like Kim Philby, to be a Russian agent, and Smiley thinks, “It would be beautiful in another context.” “I used to love those double-double games,” an old researcher says in Smiley’s People. “All human life was there.”
“Do you know what love is?” a man asks in The Looking Glass War. “I’ll tell you: it is whatever you can still betray.” In this sense, Smiley’s wife loves him a lot. “There is no loyalty without betrayal,” she says rather glibly, for one in her situation. Smiley is always betrayable, and there is a grim joke here, since his task in life is to uncover betrayals at home and encourage betrayals abroad. Smiley’s wife is supposed to be his flaw and his wound, a mark of his humanity. This intimation is not entirely persuasive, since neither Smiley nor any of le Carre’s other characters can quite breathe outside the air of the thriller. No reason why they should, of course: even Sherlock Holmes would look uncomfortable in The Forsyte Saga. What Smiley and his wife suggest is not humanity and weakness, but a familiar ramification of deceit. We don’t have to be spies to betray and be betrayed, and we are all double agents of a sort. Smiley wonders whether a good double agent is not in some way true to both his loves. This strikes me as an extremely unlikely proposition about espionage, but it surely holds good for all kinds of other human relations.
The writing of Smiley’s People is a little tired, and the whole book a little bland. It is as if le Carré had crossed this ground once too often. But it is his ground; the novel has two or three splendid moments, and retains the intricate compassion that was evident even in le Carré’s first works. From the start he has been writing novels without villains, much as Thackeray wrote “a novel without a hero,” and all victories in le Carré have the dingy taste of defeat. If real spies felt that way, there wouldn’t be so much spying.