Wednesday Book Club: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

Wednesday, 31 December 2008 — 11:36pm | Book Club, Literature

This week’s selection: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) by John le Carré.

In brief: Cerebral, meticulous, labyrinthine—though not what I would call gripping, and almost certain to be better on second reading. This is the sort of mystery where the procedure of discovery largely involves retelling fragments of the story and sewing them together. The resulting patchwork is everything a character-driven spy novel should be, conscious of both the seriousness of Cold War realpolitik and the human failings of the operatives in play. It’s an expository plod, but the destination is well worth the trek.

(The Wednesday Book Club is an ongoing initiative of mine to write a book review every week. I invite you to peruse the index. For more on Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, keep reading below.)

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a wonderful example of a story that looks a lot better from the back than the front. To think of it as a complete whole is to look upon a marvel of story architecture, as a singular truth emerges out of three separate and equally absorbing threads. Here they are, for reference:

  • The Soviets have a high-level mole in the recently restructured Circus (i.e. the British Secret Intelligence Service). Who is it?
  • The British have a well-placed source in Moscow Centre known only as Merlin, access to whom was limited to a tight circle of individuals running their own little show within a show—that is, before they took control of the Circus and reorganized it in the wake of a major international incident. What’s going on?
  • The major international incident in question left British agent Jim Prideaux with his cover blown and two bullets in his back, and the country’s whole Czechoslovakian network in ruins. What happened?

In the eye of this delicate maelstrom is George Smiley, our lovable washed-up everyman spook of a protagonist. As if his removal from the service in the reorganization wasn’t enough for Smiley to handle, his wife had a very public love affair with one of the agents in the surviving inner circle. Even the Soviets knew.

It’s clear from the start that all three plots are intimately connected; they share the same paperback cover. What isn’t so easy to trace is how Smiley and his similarly excluded ally, Peter Guillam, figure out the same connections for themselves, or how they chose the order of their investigations with the convenience of the reader in mind, saving the most important documents and interviews for last. A lot of it seems based on a hunch, but after enough years in the service, one becomes good at hunches.

Oh, I’m sure it’s all there, the way they come upon how to piece the jigsaw together and spit it out as a plausible theory for their dastardly quarries to confirm or deny. It’s just a little hard to follow under the deluge of names and identities, some of them real, others false. Readers without a sharp memory for transient characters will find themselves flipping back and forth as a routine.

I’m reluctant to assign blame to either the author or my own derelict attention span, and I won’t be quick to call this a flaw. An intelligence agency is anything but a simple affair, and it appears to me that a large part of what John le Carré aimed to achieve was the presentation of the Cold War information trade as a black-market nightmare of the highest order, a mangled Frankenstein monster of a cross between banking, infrastructure, and state-sponsored fraud. By the end of the novel, a reader is bound to develop a working fluency in the Circus jargon of lamplighters and scalphunters, and find it all quite suitable for ordinary business.

And ordinary business it is, should we forget that the stakes involved are the stability of sovereign nations and the lives of embedded operatives—to put it crudely, that spies are people too. The portraits we see of Smiley and Guillam alike are of distractible old men who don’t have the luxury of locking up their private lives in remote corners of memory whilst on the job. Their personal travails spill all over the narration, a decision sure to delight readers with a palate for expository digression and frustrate those who prefer straightforward plots.

Exposition gets a bad rap in some compositional schools of thought. It’s common to hear advice to favour “front-story” over backstory, or to recite the mantra “show, don’t tell” without a lot of thought as to whether the distinction is at all unambiguous. It goes without saying that it would be a lot less interesting for le Carré to come out and declare, “George Smiley couldn’t get over his duplicitous wife,” or “None of these overripe Oxford men have figured out how to reconcile themselves with the tragic decline of British global power,” than for him to suggest these ideas in the form of, well, a novel. Yet there is no denying that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy thrives on backstory and its telling.

The bulk of the plot as it happens in the novel’s temporal present consists of excursions into the past. A missing loose-cannon operative shows up and tells a story; documents pilfered from the Circus archives tell a story; the people on the job the night of the Czechoslovakian disaster tell their stories. Why not show it to us, Mr le Carré?

I’ll tell you why: because the delivery of sinister truths through the voices and paper trails of the characters has certain distinct advantages. For one thing, they could be lying, or concealing the juicy bits that matter the most. (They’re spies! That’s what they do!) For another, they could very well arrive at the truth through the construction of hypothetical possibilities that may have a few kinks, but are largely on the mark. Exposition is in the nature of exposure, and therefore of investigation itself.

In one of the finest segments of the novel—and I’ll refrain from saying too much, as it occurs in the book’s third and most involving act—Jim Prideaux, the field agent who took the fall in the Czechoslovakian incident, recalls how he readied himself for interrogation, sorting out in his head a hierarchy of secrets he would or would not be willing to disclose, and which operations he would rather compromise before the others. Le Carré’s attention to procedural detail is astonishing, often to the point of daring the reader to take notes and map everything out to verify that the swamp of data is internally consistent. But equally of merit is his grasp of how the manner in which a story comes out is a product of human invention prone to human error.

This is a quality more abundant in the nested stories themselves, and the grand master plan that comes out by the end, than in the forward progression of the novel from Chapter 1 to 38. Often le Carré gives us too much to keep track of at once. But give him credit for putting Humpty together again: the resolution of the whole sorry mess, which I’ll not spoil here, makes considerable use of the observation that secret agents are as subject to the emotional damage of betrayal as anybody else. You can take the plot out of the character, but you can’t take the character out of the plot.

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4 rejoinders to “Wednesday Book Club: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book. It’s one of my favorite stories — and Smiley one of my favorite characters. Have you seen the BBC miniseries from 1979 starring Alec Guinness as Smiley? It’s wonderfully done — and (in my opinion) much better than the novel. There’s also a BBC version (again, with Guinness) of “Smiley’s People.”

    Friday, 2 January 2009 at 1:07pm

  2. Thanks for coming by. I heard about the BBC miniseries after I finished the book, as one of the things I was thinking about as I was reading it was what one would have to do to squash the structure of the novel into something visually presentable. As far as adaptations of le Carré are concerned, I quite admired the Fernando Meirelles film of The Constant Gardener, which has its own way of grappling with nonlinear memories (though I haven’t read the book and don’t know how it compares).

    I also read somewhere that le Carré is collaborating on a big-screen adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, though it’s always hard to tell when these things are actually on track, or if they are condemned to development hell.

    Friday, 2 January 2009 at 2:02pm

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