The Short Version: Control is dead and Smiley has been forced out of the Circus. But nothing about his enforced retirement and the new regime at the Circus is quite what it seems – because there is a Soviet mole, right at the top of heap, and it’s up to George Smiley to bring him down. Trouble is, if the mole is at the top of the organization, is there anyone you can trust?
The Review: Let’s be clear about something, right off the bat. This novel is labyrinthine in the best way. Mr. le Carré doesn’t make any concessions to his reader: you have to just jump in and hopefully learn how to swim before you drown in the terminology and double-crosses. This is like London on a foggy night, where you only maybe get 2/3rds of a glimpse of something before it has moved on and you have to hope it was enough to keep you moving.
In this way, the novel makes sense as (perhaps) the greatest spy novel of all time. I’ve never read another spy novel that so successfully puts the reader right into the midst of what it feels like to be a spy – because it isn’t all James Bond action. The big denouement here really isn’t all that big – but the tension leading up to it is amazing. Because we don’t know who Gerald (the mole) is and neither do our protagonists. Smiley, Guillam, Mendel, Tarr – none of them know what’s going to happen. And the tension almost creeps up on you, to the point that you’re rather taken by surprise when you find yourself at the edge of your seat. But the tension lurks throughout the whole book, like an off-key buzzing in the back of your hearing. Yet there are very few action sequences: most of the book deals with Smiley wandering around and talking to people.
But isn’t that what spying is really all about? It’s about the interminable time trying to blend in – the moments where Guillam is infiltrating his own library to switch out a file is pulse-pounding… but all it is is switching a file. The modern reader, used to Bourne films and lots of explosions, isn’t necessarily primed for this sort of classical adventure. But for a kid who grew up on Hitchcock, on “The Third Man”, on John Buchan novels – this truly is the greatest spy novel ever written. Because the inherent tension of being a spy is what suffuses the entire book. You’re always watching over your shoulder, flinching at shadows, and likely pretty tense about it. Your homelife, like Smiley’s and like Guillam’s (and arguably like Tarr’s), takes a backseat and you bring your work home no matter how hard you try… and it can ruin things. There’s a reason Ann left Smiley. But there’s also a reason Camilla comes back to Guillam.
I haven’t seen the new movie yet – I haven’t seen the old Alec Guinness version either. But I found myself, throughout the book, picturing individuals from the new film. Guillam was Cumberbatch, Percy was Toby Jones, Haydon was Colin Firth. Smiley was arguably Gary Oldman but at the same time not quite – Oldman is such a chameleon that I’m sure he slips into the role well, but Smiley always felt a bit too soft to be someone like Oldman. There’s a paradox at the heart of Smiley – he seems a bit too nebbish almost to’ve actually been such a great spy. But perhaps that’s just because he grew a little soft, a little flabby, after coming to the fifth floor and leaving active duty. And le Carré has no problem embracing the vague ambiguities about Smiley: he’ll seem a little soft and then suddenly you get this realization that he’s more with-it than anybody else in the room at any given moment. During his questioning of people, for example, you realize that he’s playing a part and doing it damn well. There’s a reason that le Carré makes so many allusions to acting and the theater – Smiley is a consumate actor.
I was unaware coming into this book that it was, in fact, the fifth George Smiley novel. Apparently he doesn’t feature heavily in all of the former novels but he plays a major role in all of them in one way or another. This was an intriguing realization and I’m not sure if I would’ve preferred to read this other novels first or not. This book certainly exists as a stand-alone – I didn’t feel like I was missing any information… and yet I wonder if I would’ve been quicker on the uptake had I already been briefed on some of the terminology and jargon and what-not. Apparently the author took some liberties with this book (the start of a trilogy, it appears) and reset some of the chronology of the Smiley timeline… so I wonder how that will play out when I eventually get back to the first four books. Knowing the identity of the mole, for example, might be interesting if he appears in the other books. I’ll be curious to see my reactions.
Rating: 5 out of 5. Crackerjack stuff, really. It’s confusing and dense and perhaps I’d’ve been better served to read it during a week when I wasn’t burning the candle at both ends as well as holding a lighter under the middle – but I found myself over the last few days trying to steal time to read it. Taking a slightly longer lunch because I wanted to read another chapter. Staying up later than I should’ve or waking up earlier than I needed to in order to read a bit more. I’m arguably going to be late picking up my next BookClub book because I want to finish the trilogy asap – I’m pretty sure The Honourable Schoolboy is next on my stack. So if that’s not a ringing endorsement, we need to recalibrate the scales. I want to read this whole trilogy with a few pots of tea, some pretzels, a rainy weekend, and the The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo album from Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross (yep – first time in a long time that a novel has linked up with an album… and I couldn’t’ve asked for a better one that this. Try it and you’ll buy it). Since that’s unfortunately not in the cards, I’ll keep stealing time as often as I can.