13 March 2013

Books: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John Le Carré (1974)

John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy first came to my knowledge when PBS was airing the BBC mini-series version sometime in the early 1980s. I was, maybe, interested in because it starred Alec Guinness, who’s long career had been given a boost due to Star Wars (which I was kind of mad about). However, I was not necessarily a fan of the spy genre. The real spy genre, I should say, and not the ones I was brought up on via the James Bond franchise (oddly, I’ve never read the Bond books by Fleming) or the TV series ones like Wild Wild West, Mission: Impossible, I, Spy, The Avengers or Secret Agent Man and The Prisoner. 

Also, in the 1980s, because of my fascination with science fiction and fantasy, all other genres where pushed aside. It’s only been the last decade or so that I’ve begun reading stuff I missed back then. But up until the 2011 film remake of this novel, I had never tried to read a traditional spy thriller. 

And while I find this a well written story, I also felt like I stepped into the middle story of a much larger narrative. It’s the same feeling I get when I try to watch Japanese anime; ten minutes into a movie I feel like I’ve missed about an hour of it. That’s because a lot of those stories are based on folklore passed down hundreds of years. And the Japanese audience that these films were originally designed for, need little in the way of backstory. 

The same was with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; I felt even by page 20 I had missed a good chunk of the story. Part of it is the spy jargon Le Carré uses –most of which he fails to explain. And as a “newbie” to the spy genre of old (this book was released in 1974, so it details all the World War II and Cold War activity of British spies) it took an effort to figure out just what all of it meant. Today I have Wikipedia to help, but I do wish he explained a bit more than he did. Maybe he just assumed that the reader was smarter and would not worry about understanding what he said, and maybe he all guessed that not many outside of Britain would read the book, as it is also filled with a lot of British euphemisms.  

The plot revolves around a potential mole with in the British spy service. British agent Ricki Tarr discovers, after an affair in Hong Kong with the wife of a Moscow Centre intelligence officer, that there may be a high-ranking Soviet mole, codenamed "Gerald," within the Circus . After going into hiding to avoid Soviet agents, Tarr alerts his immediate superior, Peter Guillam, who in turn notifies Undersecretary Oliver Lacon, the Civil Service officer responsible for overseeing the Intelligence Services. Lacon enlists George Smiley, the retired former Deputy Head of the Service, to investigate. Smiley and Guillam must investigate without the knowledge of the Circus, which is headed by Sir Percy Alleline and his deputies Bill Haydon, Roy Bland, and Toby Esterhase, as any of these could be the mole. Smiley suspects that Gerald was responsible for the failure of Operation Testify, a mission in Communist Czechoslovakia, the purpose of which was to meet a defecting Czech Army general. Operation Testify ended with Circus agent Jim Prideaux walking into a trap, shot in the back and tortured, and caused the disgrace and dismissal of Control, the aging, ailing head of the Circus, who subsequently dies of heart disease. Prideaux, who survived and was repatriated and dismissed from the Circus, reveals to Smiley that Control suspected the mole's existence, and the true aim of Operation Testify was to learn the mole's identity from the Czech general. 

The plot goes on, and gets more complex as the book sort of becomes a traditional whodunit, except with spies instead of a murder. I liked it, and Le Carré’s writing style is dense, and never talks down to the reader.

Still, I found myself stymied by the spy jargon and his lack of explanation of what it all meant –a nice dictionary at the end would’ve helped. But in 1974, when books were a bit more thicker in prose than today, perhaps that would have insulted the reader.

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