“Disconcerting Clarity”: John Le Carré, Smiley’s People


He was in late age, yet his tradecraft had never been better; for the first time in his career, he held the advantage over his old adversary.

On the other hand, that adversary had acquired a human face of disconcerting clarity. It was no brute whom Smiley was pursuing with such mastery, no unqualified fanatic after all, no automaton. It was a man; and one whose downfall, if Smiley chose to bring it about, would be caused by nothing more sinister than excessive love, a weakness with which Smiley himself, from his own tangled life, was eminently familiar.

[Warning: This post contains spoilers!]

In his preface to my edition of Smiley’s People, John Le Carré says that he intended the novel to be a “requiem” to George Smiley, a fitting send-off to a character he loved but was ready to leave behind. It certainly has the feeling of a fond but mournful farewell–not just to Smiley but to the motivating conflicts and underlying values that both previous books in the trilogy have explored. They too are not simplistic celebrations of the ideological antagonism of which Smiley and his colleagues are agents, of course, but by the end of Smiley’s People there is no possibility of fanfare for even the most exhilarating victory: there’s only futility and an unhappy recognition of kinship across lines of enmity that once seemed definitive.

smiley-people-2The enemy here is once again the shadowy figure known as “Karla.” For Smiley, as Le Carré makes very clear, the pursuit is as much personal as political. “It’s to do with the people who ruined Bill Haydon,” he tells Ann in a scene full of devastatingly understated emotional pain–but he is thinking, “who ruined you.” Later, waiting to see if Karla will take “the last step,” Smiley rehearses the case against him:

He thought of Vladimir and Otto Leipzig and the dead Kirov; he thought of Haydon and his own life’s work ruined; he thought of Ann, permanently stained for him by Karla’s cunning and Haydon’s scheming embrace. He recited in his despair a whole list of crimes–the tortures, the killings, the endless ring of corruption–to lay upon the frail shoulders of this one pedestrian on the bridge …

To get to that point Smiley has in fact triumphed, but the story of his success is as sad as it is thrilling, as the complicated entanglement of agents and double-agents, watched and watchers, enforcers and dissidents, gradually simplifies into the story of a father and daughter.

smiley-guinessEvery element of the case is shot through with moral and emotional ambivalence. The high point of the novel–the turning of one of Karla’s agents–wins Smiley the admiration of his people, reported to us in elegiac retrospection:

Once again, Toby insists on bearing witness here to Smiley’s unique mastery of the occasion. It was the strongest proof yet of Smiley’s tradecraft, says Toby … that throughout Grigoriev’s protracted narrative, he never once, whether by an over-hasty follow-up question or the smallest false inflection of his voice, departed from the faceless role he had assumed for the interrogation. By his self-effacement, Toby insists, George held the whole scene “like a thrush’s egg in his hand.” The slightest careless movement on his part could have destroyed everything, but he never made it.

But this long and gripping scene, this relentless demonstration of Smiley’s self-control and skill, is at the expense of “a humane and decent man caught in the net of events beyond his understanding or control,” and in the service of a quest to ruin another man by using his “one great love” against him. Smiley has long been driven by Karla’s “absolutism,”

which at least gave point to the perpetual chaos that was life’s condition; point to violence, and to death; … Karla, for whom killing had never been more than the necessary adjunct of a grand design.

Against this, he had imagined himself hampered “by doubt and a sense of decency.” Now he sees another Karla, “the Karla flawed by humanity.” Who, now, is the absolutist, the fanatic?

smiley-people-3As Smiley awaits the resolution of his quest, which he has undertaken in defiance of changed policies and protocols, under the shadow of “complete deniability” from the higher-ups, because this, this, is what they had once staked everything on, because this is the man against whom he has defined himself–as he stands in the shadows of the Berlin Wall, that relentless symbol of everything that divides his side from the other side–Smiley knows that if he wins this game he has made the difference between them irrelevant. “I have destroyed him with the weapons I abhorred,” he reflects, “and they are his. We have crossed each other’s frontiers, we are the no-men of this no-man’s-land.” And so he finds himself, against all odds, perhaps against all reason, hoping that Karla will not cross, or will not make it: “Don’t come, thought Smiley. Shoot, Smiley thought, talking to Karla’s people, not his own.”

But Karla does cross, only that too is not a triumphant moment. “One little man, hatless, with a satchel”: is that, in the end, what it has all been about? No, of course, as the grim checkpoint, with its “halo” of light on the Western side and its sharpshooters on the other, reminds us. Waiting, watching, however, Smiley finds it impossible to think of Karla only as the agent of a murderous state. “He did not want these spoils, won by these methods,” he thinks,  and Le Carré leaves us too feeling dissatisfied at the ongoing paradox that some wars can only be won by losing, by giving up your allegiance to the very thing you are fighting for. “What shall it profit a man,” as the Bible verse has it, “if he gain the whole world but lose his soul?” Yet Smiley too is both man and operative; his actions in Smiley’s People are not aberrations but the fulfillment of his life’s work, the perfection of its intrinsic contradictions and longstanding moral dilemmas. In this requiem there is no note of redemption: there’s only resignation and regret. “You won, George,” says his old friend Peter Guillam. “I suppose I did,” is Smiley’s perfectly equivocal reply.

2 thoughts on ““Disconcerting Clarity”: John Le Carré, Smiley’s People

  1. Anne is Reading July 7, 2019 / 10:30 am

    You have expressed so coherently everything I have ever felt about this wonderful novel.


    • Rohan Maitzen July 7, 2019 / 3:07 pm

      I’m glad: it gave me “all the feels,” as the kids say, and I wanted to capture something of its emotional resonance rather than focusing too intently on its plot.


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