“Some people act a memory, the Superintendent thought, noticing his concentration, others have one. In the Superintendent’s book, memory was the better half of intelligence, he prized it highest of all mental accomplishments; and Smiley, he knew, possessed it.”
John le Carre, Smiley’s People, p. 43.And so my hunt for Karla comes to an end (having previously read Tinker, Tailor and the Honourable Schoolboy).
This would constitute quite a hefty spoiler were Karla’s presence not signposted in the blurb - and in the only clip of the telly version they ever seem to show. Which is a shame, as it would have been a corking great surprise to realise only late into the book why Smiley’s so excited.
It’s been a while since Smiley’s last work for the Circus (the officious and inelegant British secret service). But his paymasters want him to tidy up after the brutal murder of one of his old agents. Could he be a good fellow and ensure there’s no fuss?
But as old George walks his old haunts and catches up with his old (and peculiar) chums, he gets the sniff of a much greater intrigue. Retired, jaded, and estranged from his wife, old George may just have the nounce left to win one last, glorious battle…
It’s a gripping read, and like Tinker, Tailor navigates a treacherous path through unreliable memories and differing perspectives. You spend most of it lagging some steps behind Smiley, not quite making the connections that he can and hoping he’ll stop to explain.
It really gets across the slow-trudging monotony of cold war spy-work, tawdry and unglamorous, and very not James Bond. (The telly version boasts a brilliant cast including three Bond villains – two of them consecutive – as well as Maureen Lipman, Alan Rickman, Ingrid Pitt, Gatherer Hade and Lou Beale.)
I’m still a bit confused about some elements. Codename “Karla” (we’re never told his name) can’t have been Ostrakov because Mrs O. saw her husband die of cancer. So is Karla really Glickman, the lover she’s long-assumed dead? Does that play, or am I missing something obvious with my paltry dimness of brain?
The book makes a few things more explicit than the TV version – stating as fact (eventually) what Alexandria’s relationship is to Karla, and why that’d matter.
The TV version likewise provides stuff we don’t get in the book, such as the contents of Smiley’s letter to his caught-out Moriarty (reminding me of S Moffat on why he felt we should know what Reinette wrote). There’s also more to Smiley’s meeting with his estranged wife, Ann. Karla had previously used the Smileys’ problematic marriage to his own advantage, and in the telly version Smiley tries to protect her from any further danger.
In the book, though, he’s colder and more aloof – ending things between them without saying why. The implication (that I saw, anyway) is that he’s cutting himself off from weakness, rather than worrying for her safety. So Karla and he swap places – Karla showing human frailties and concern for family, Smiley coldly using this against him. As Smiley himself says:
“I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred, and they are his.”
Ibid, p. 391.We’re kept guessing right up to the end about whether it’s going to all work out or implode into some grisly snafu. That uncertainty is helped by knowing that le Carre stories so often end with someone’s sudden and miserable death.
But whatever the outcome, it can’t be a full victory. Smiley’s people are used, abused and left strewn behind him.