John le Carré
Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
George Smiley, the central figure in much of le Carré's spy fiction, is a former senior intelligence officer who is called out of retirement to give advice when a former agent of his, Vladimir, is found brutally murdered on Hampstead Heath. Smiley suspects that this event was instigated by his old KGB adversary, known only by his nickname Karla, and the theme of the book is Smiley's quest to discover what underlies the murder and, ultimately, to get Karla to defect to the West and submit to interrogation.
Smiley is a subtle and complex character, and the narrative technique reflects this. The story is told slowly and often indirectly; in fact, the first chapter does not deal with Smiley at all but centres on a Russian woman, an emigrée living in Paris, whose relevance becomes clear only later. And even when Smiley does appear, we are not always privy to his thoughts and feelings, which we are often expected to infer from veiled hints. His failed marriage to Ann continues to trouble him and she herself puts in a brief appearance towards the end.
Smiley is as different from James Bond as he could be. He is small and fat and completely unathletic, with no aptitude for physical violence. Any readers whose ideas of how the intelligence services work are based on the television series Spooks, will find themselves in a very different (and more believable) world here; it is, of course, one that le Carré knows well at first hand. Smiley's erstwhile superiors are represented mostly as pompous fools, and Smiley himself is riven by doubts and hesitations even as he plots Karla's downfall. Neither East nor West emerges with much credit here.
The general tone of the book is sombre, though enlivened with touches of sardonic humour. At the end, Smiley is only partly convinced that he has done the right thing. "George, you have won," a friend who has been helping him tells him. Smiley's reply is uncertain. "Did I?" said Smiley. "Yes. Yes, well, I suppose I did."
28 December 2010
%T Smiley's People
%A John le Carré
%I Hodder & Stoughton
%G ISBN 0-340-24704-5
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