He did not like to leave her there in the dark, swaying under the trees, so he walked her halfway back to the house, neither of them talking. As he went down the road, he heard her humming again, so loud it was like a scream. But it was nothing to the mayhem inside him just then, the currents of alarm and anger and disgust at this blind night walk, with God knew what bodies at the end.
Like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy uses its spy-thriller plot as a vehicle for the exploration of character. It has a more intricate and layered plot, though, and it involves a larger cast of characters, so in both respects it makes greater demands on the reader–and the reader reaps correspondingly greater rewards. Because it takes so long to unpick the knot at the center of the novel, we have more time to recognize the stakes, and to appreciate the toll such protracted suspicion and interrogation–of the past, of other people, of one’s own motives–take on everyone involved, but especially on George Smiley, who is an unlikely and often unwilling protagonist in this quest for ugly revelations.
I was fascinated by the structure of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It begins not at the beginning, and not in medias res, but afterwards, when everything it is ostensibly about has already happened. It is a drama, then, not of action but of hard-won retrospective understanding–of memories, scattered, repressed, and painstakingly (often painfully) collated until the whole story is finally present and can be brought to its uneasy resolution. Collation is a strange form of heroism, but then Smiley–“small, podgy, and at best middle-aged”–is a strange kind of hero, with his unsettling blend of avuncular calm and predatory focus.
As I did with Spy, I read Tinker, Tailor with mostly passive fascination, not trying to get ahead of Smiley to the truth about the mole known as “Gerald”–which is not to say I didn’t have my guesses, but the novel is not written to satisfy fair play conventions, and we only get information as it is doled out, by Le Carré as he chooses whose story to tell next and by Smiley, whose tactical reticence is its own form of genius. Smiley is of course the greatest of the characters here, but they are all–from gruff Jim Prideaux and his “watcher,” little Bill “Jumbo” Roach, to the four members of the Circus who give the novel its name–rendered with memorable specificity. Le Carré creates not just a world but multiple worlds, too, the best of them the damp, grubby, second-hand London in which Smiley conducts his backwards investigation. As he carries out his inquiries, we make excursions to other times and places, some louder and more lively, some even darker and more fraught with menace. But we always come back with Smiley to the Hotel Islay in Sussex Gardens, where he stays still while moving, in his mind, without cease:
As Smiley retraced path after path into his own past, there was no longer any difference between the two: forwards or backwards, it was the same journey and its destination lay ahead of him. There was nothing in that room, no object among that whole magpie collection of tattered hotel junk, that separated him from the rooms of his recollection. . . .This mental transposition was so complete in Smiley that when his phone rang . . . he had to give himself time to remember where he was.
There’s intellectual satisfaction as the pieces come together, and I felt a touch of pride that by the end I could grasp the plot Smiley eventually unravels for us, though of course that’s Le Carré’s accomplishment, not mine–to make the facts elusive and yet also to make their revelation both clear and seemingly inevitable.
What’s particularly brilliant, though, is the way that in its very final chapters–once the mole’s identity is confirmed and thus the puzzle that is supposedly central to the novel has been solved–Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy turns on itself. After all that time and work, there is no satisfaction, no triumph, for Smiley, in his own success. Instead, abruptly, what was almost an abstract research exercise becomes all too real, its consequences all too human:
The wave of angry doubt that had swept over him in Lacon’s garden, and that ever since had pulled against his progress like a worrying tide, drove him now on to the rocks of despair, and then to mutiny: I refuse. Nothing is worth the destruction of another human being. Somewhere the path of pain and betrayal must end. Until that happened, there was no future; there was only a continued slide into still more terrifying versions of the present. This man was my friend and Ann’s lover, Jim’s friend and–for all I know–Jim’s lover, too; it was the treason, not the man, that belonged to the public domain.
What is it all for, after all, this ruthless pursuit? Is it not, in its own way, a betrayal as bad? What can or should command the kind of loyalty that exacts such a price?
Smiley felt not only disgust, but, despite all that the moment meant to him, a surge of resentment against the institutions he was supposed to be protecting. . . . such men invalidated any contract–why should anyone be loyal to them?
It’s not that Smiley has ever been naive or idealistic–not in this novel anyway, though we get hints of an earlier, more openhearted version. He’s lived throughout Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy with a more personal betrayal, after all, and there’s no sign at the end of any redemption there either: “tall and puckish, extraordinarily beautiful, essentially another man’s woman.” For all the shopworn disillusionment that haunts the novel, though, Smiley’s grief at the outcome he himself has brought about is its own kind of bittersweet grace, and there’s a bit of comfort in sensing that even after all of this, he holds on to the possibility of something better: “Illusion? Was that really Karla’s name for love?”