The Circus, hub of Britain’s spymasters, is in disarray. After the discovery of a mole in the previous novel, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the secret service have lost all respect in the eyes of their employers, their enemies and their allies.
It falls to George Smiley, once retired, now returned to action, to rebuild their shattered reputation. Backtracking through old cases, he and his ragtag band of trusted survivors pore over past case files looking for the slip that the mole might have left in covering his tracks. A chance discovery leads them to Drake Ko, a mysterious Hong Kong financier.
The Circus know that something is awry but they don’t know what it is. They are not sure who they are chasing, what evidence they are gathering, or even what interest their Warsaw Pact rivals have in Hong Kong. They are feeling in the dark, following a hunch, which means that this novel has an extraordinarily complicated plot. It is impossible to tell who is on what side, or even who is alive or dead.
Everything comes back to George Smiley, the crumpled, weary, but wiley spymaster, who is pursuing a decades-long vendetta against his Soviet opposite number, codenamed Karla.
Smiley and his colleagues perform ghastly work, where people are mere assets and their own operatives can be left to be tortured or killed with barely a shrug of their shoulders. Yet we feel pity for him.
It must be because Smiley feels completely real. He is one of the great characters of British twentieth century fiction. This is partly brought about through le Carré’s cinematic descriptions:
‘Lucca. Yes. Ann and I went there. Oh, eleven, twelve years ago it must have been. It rained.’ He gave a little laugh. In a cramped bay at the further end of the room, Jerry glimpsed a narrow, bony-looking camp bed with a row of telephones at the head. ‘We visited the bagno, I remember,’ Smiley went on. ‘It was the fashionable cure. Lord alone knows what we were curing.’ He attacked the fire again and this time the flames flew alive, daubing the rounded contours of his face with strokes of orange, and making gold pools of his thick spectacles.
Locations also come thrillingly alive, be they remote Chinese beaches, hideaways in the jungles of Laos or the grim streets of London:
the rain was taking a mid-morning pause. On the slate rooftops of Victorian cottages, the dripping chimney pots huddled like bedraggled birds among the television aerials. Behind them, held up by scaffolding, rose the outline of a public housing estate abandoned for want of funds.
Back in 1977, when this book was published, le Carré was often lumped together with vacuous airport novelists. After the Cold War ended, many people imagined that his work had lost all relevance. Yet le Carré is more popular than ever with multiple film treatments of his books in the works.
Le Carré has survived the Fall because his books are not really ‘about’ spying at all. They express the indignation of an honourable man who sees his country and the system he believes in ruthlessly exploiting anyone who gets in their way. His books are about justice and how quickly it is sidelined:
‘…the Company [the CIA] used a few of the northern hilltribes for combat purposes, maybe you knew that. Right up there in Burma, know those parts, the Shans? … Lot of those tribes were one-crop communities, ah, opium communities, and in the interest of the war there, the Company had to, ah, well, turn a blind eye to what we couldn’t change, follow me? These good people had to live and many knew no better and saw nothing wrong in, ah, growing that crop. Follow me?’
His works also explore the peculiar desires that drive people to become deep-cover operatives, like Jerry Westerby, the ‘honourable schoolboy’ of the title. It is a weird profession where decisions of life and death are rewarded not with riches or praise, but with letters that can be read, but never kept, by their recipients.
The Honourable Schoolboy is a great novel which could have won the Booker Prize had it not suffered from the contempt that people used to have for the genre in which le Carré chose to work. However, like the spooks of his story, one feels that he takes quiet satisfaction in a job well done, even if it is performed in the shadows, away from the bright lights of polite society.
You can read a fascinating 2010 interview with le Carré here.