Move Over Bond, Meet the World’s True Post-Modern Spy

Posted on December 9, 2011


Garry Oldman plays George Smiley in the new Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Readers of “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” first encounter George Smiley, the puzzled problem-solver of the novel’s maze, as he hastens along a rainy London street. It is by no means his first appearance in the pages of le Carré. He was in “Call for the Dead,” and then in “A Murder of Quality” (1962), in which he is somehow transfigured into a detective, and asked by a friend to investigate a murder at a public school. (In English parlance, that means private. Le Carré based it on the school that he had attended and despised. I went there myself.) The following year, Smiley slipped into “The Spy Who Came In from the Cold,” which remains le Carré’s most celebrated work, partly because it scraped every lingering speck of James Bond from our understanding of what spying might entail. Smiley is compared to a “surgeon who has grown tired of blood,” thus yielding the odd, Prufrockian sense of a man whose great days, as a hopeful human, are already behind him, even though his finest hour, as a spy, may be yet to come. He is said to be “a kindly, worried little man,” and the diminutive marks him as a bit player: an impression confirmed by “The Looking-Glass War” (1965), where he is granted a wretched and thankless minor part, pulling agents out of a job near the East German border, and leaving another man at the mercy of the foe. All of which is grist for the mill of contrition and regret that grinds within Smiley’s conscience, and which accounts for the weary but determined air with which he shuffles, “with a lumpy skip,” onto center stage, in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” and finally assumes his rightful role.

From the start, Smiley has a habit of being dragged out of retirement, like a badger from hibernation, to inspect the Circus, and, if required, erase disorder or rot. Even in “Call for the Dead,” we learn, he has already done his undercover duty in the Second World War, and withdrawn into scholarly quietude at Oxford; then comes the summons. So it is with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” Control has died, taking his fears of betrayal to the grave, and unmourned except by Smiley, who lost his job not long afterward. Now the murmured possibility of a mole has emerged once more, and the list of suspects has been narrowed to four wise men, each with a code name culled from a nursery rhyme: Percy Alleline, Tinker; Bill Haydon, Tailor; Roy Bland, Soldier; and Toby Esterhase, Poorman. Smiley himself was once the fifth man—labelled Beggarman, which is no surprise. As an ex-spy, he is in the clear, and ideally placed to come in from the cold, at the invitation of the Cabinet Office, and find the culprit. Jim Prideaux tried, and took two bullets for his pains; now it is Smiley’s turn. [Read here]

Posted in: the critic