Smiley’s People

The Short Version: George Smiley, long retired from the Circus, is called back into action after an old contact turns up dead.  As it turns out, this contact had a piece of information that leads Smiley onto the trail of his old nemesis – his Moriarty, his white whale – and so he rounds up the last remaining members of his ‘people’ and lays the trap.  The Circus turns a blind eye, waiting for the results, and while Toby and Peter and everyone else wait with baited breath, Smiley considers his methods and this approaching endgame – and when Karla appears, he isn’t entirely sure how to feel about the moment.

The Review: An interesting and well-played endgame to the Karla saga.  It doesn’t quite contain the power of Tinker Tailor… but it also packs more of a punch than The Honourable Schoolboy.  It’s a bit older, a bit wiser – a bit slower, to be honest.  But that makes sense.  Smiley himself is older, out of the Circus yet again, and as a result this whole thing feels like “one…last…time…”

The problems with Honourable are mostly gone here – the book is entirely Smiley.  It actually suffers in that way, vaguely – I wish there was more of the supporting cast at times.  Guillam barely appears in this novel and that was a sadness, although his moments with George at the end of the novel are a fitting end to the trilogy.  Toby is back and most of the other major support makes an appearance at one point or another – but it mostly feels like a final role-call.  A sequence with Connie was particularly heartbreaking when viewed through that lens.

The one problem that isn’t resolved is, I believe, a recurring problem with le Carré’s novels and that is a certain sense of the minutiae of things.  He takes the time to go through individual moments, almost to excess, much as Smiley might go through every bit of information in order to be thorough.  This thoroughness of writing, while a trademark of le Carré’s work, is exhausting at times.  I almost feel as though I can’t separate le Carré and Smiley in that sense – where Smiley is meticulous, so is le Carré.  This is exciting when the pace picks up – Smiley using his old training in the field as he discovers another dead contact, even the final sequence where they capture and turn Karla’s contact – but can be tiresome when Smiley is asking people questions over and over again.  Despite the pace of the novel being faster than either of the preceding books, it still drags when compared to Tinker… and that’s a problem.  I’m sorry to say it but that’s a problem.

Still, the ending more than makes up for any problems I may’ve had.  As Smiley watches Karla come across the no-man’s land in Berlin. “We are the no-men of this no-man’s land,” he thinks – because he realizes that he’s used Karla’s own techniques to turn him.  And in doing so, he has become no better than the thing he wanted to defeat.  It is the moral of the Cold War: we become that which we fight against in order to win the day… but what does that cost us?  Smiley’s insecurity in the face of victory is heartbreaking and yet so brilliant that I understand why the entirety of this sometimes-frustrating novel was necessary.

Rating: 4 out of 5. A better novel than the last but still feeling like only a piece of the story.  Where Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was self-contained and The Honourable Schoolboy like two novels mushed together, this feels rather like 2/3rds of a novel.  Nothing seems to happen (they’re just looking and talking and thinking) and then all of the sudden there is serious tension and action and then POOF it’s gone again.  This feels like an epilogue more than a novel.  I suppose that’s because our main character is reaching the twilight of his days and so action is probably out of his wheelhouse at this point.  And so, yes, I was vaguely disappointed.  But the morals, the ethics, the serious weight of the novel is enough to be not only pleasing but downright challenging.  This trilogy didn’t play out the way I thought it would – but I suppose that in and of itself is sign enough that le Carré truly is the master of his craft.

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