This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page
It may be confidently asserted that the cypher-like emoticon things which nowadays adorn all correspondence amongst people under 30 do not derive their name from George Smiley. The taciturn intelligence officer central to a number of John Le Carré’s most memorable novels, including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is rarely given to emotion, let alone enthusiasm. And with good reason. As Le Carre chronicles, from personal experience, the work of a Cold War spy is painstaking and unglamorous, a quid pro quo only for obscurity, paranoia, possible derangement and almost certain betrayal.
Brought out of forced retirement to hunt a mole (code-named Gerald) whom, it transpires, has effectively turned the Circus – the innermost circle of British secret intelligence – into an arm of Moscow Centre, Smiley is a man betrayed at almost every turn in Tinker, Tailor. Jaded yet loyal, we are led to infer that he feels Gerald’s deception, of the service and of Britain, deeply. That Gerald turns out to be the charismatic Bill Haydon, one of Smiley’s wife’s many lovers, adds further to his martyrdom. And, to top it off, his earlier banishment from the Circus was the price he paid for loyalty to “Control”, the boss ousted after a botched operation which was, it emerges, a trap set up by Haydon and Moscow.
Condensing Le Carré’s intricate storyline is no easy task – as Thomas Alfredson, who directed the recent film version, has attested. But as Smiley burrows deeper into past events – the novel begins in media res and jumps about – he assembles a mosaic of duplicity. Scholars have likened him to Homer’s Odysseus, the scorned outsider putting the kingdom bang to rights, but the Circus’s day of reckoning brings him little satisfaction. And when the final act of revenge, betrayal’s narrative bastard, comes, it is implied the bullet is fired by Jim Prideaux, Haydon’s old partner.
Haydon’s character is derived from Kim Philby, one of the so-called Cambridge Five traitors and the man Le Carré believes blew his own cover as a secret agent. The author knows of what he writes, then: a Britain on whose Empire the sun is setting, exposed to subversion from within the ranks of its own establishment. And the Circus serves almost as an amphitheatre for this attrition of old certainties. Espionage is no game of cricket, certainly.
Still, though, Le Carré manages to convince us of what is at stake: loyalty matters, betrayal of one’s own is contemptible. Smiley clings to a kind of unspoken faith that whatever foulness Englishmen may be capable of in defending British interests, they are still more moral than the other chaps, and that anyway it’s all worth it to uphold the rights of the individual against the tyranny of Soviet communism. In spying on the Circus, he may be “sinning against his own notions of nobility,” but Le Carré leaves us in no doubt that some betrayals are more pardonable than others.