Monday, October 08, 2012

Book Review pt. 2: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre

Le Carre is a writer for the ages. Le Carre is our Joseph Conrad.

In Lord Jim, for instance, themes of guilt, redemption, courage and chance are woven into the story of the titular Jim, whose moment of youthful weakness haunts him to the ends of the Earth. When we see Jim sweating at his trial, or hopefully growing into the hero he wishes to be, or caught between the story of who he was and the story of who he's become, we see a discussion of big, important questions about how to live as a human being, a discussion that isn't reducible to an expository essay. And this discussion is built up within a straightforward adventure story: a dashing hero fights natives and pirates in an exotic locale. Conrad uses the nautical adventure story as the scaffold on which he builds his high-fallutin' Literature.

Le Carre does the same with spy stories. In Tinker we see a straightforward plot unfold from a simple premise: there's a mole in the highest echelons of British intelligence, and a retired genius quietly returns to give chase. Let's be clear: this is the same plot as the first Mission: Impossible film. This plot could not be more recognizable.

And yet in le Carre's hands, it sheds gold: Percy Alleline and his cabal of usurpers echo Julius Caesar's Brutus and his senators; the mole, orphaned by his own society, a latter-day Richard III ("...since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain..."); the inscrutable Karla, lord of Soviet intelligence, fascinates with his 'immoderate fanaticism' and seemingly-bottomless resources.

And George Smiley, le Carre's best-known protagonist, sniffing around the circumstances of Control's ouster like an unsexy Hamlet. Smiley, to my eye, is basically a contemporary moral hero: in the amoral world of Cold War espionage, he fumbles through, trying to do what's necessary or, failing that, to at least not make things worse. See this scene in which he lies in wait for the mole he's hunting:

Like an actor, he had a sense of approaching anti-climax before the curtain went up, a sense of great things dwindling to a small, mean end; as death itself seemed small and mean to him after the struggles of his life. He had no sense of conquest that he knew of. His thoughts, as often when he was afraid, concerned people. He had no theories or judgements [sic] in particular. He simply wondered how everyone would be affected; and he felt responsible.

Smiley's good at exactly one thing, and that's his Zen-like approach to intelligence. Everything else in his life--from his marriage to his retirement to the simplest social meetings--is a mess. Yet for all that, he accomplishes much more than his peers--mostly because he doesn't make things worse. Slowly, methodically plodding through his work, courteous to a fault, without a vindictive bone in his body, Smiley strives to understand. Only then does he act.

If that's not moral, I don't know what is.

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