“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” by John Le Carré (published by Penguin Books)

Too much cloak and a lot of dagger too

Le Carré, who was actually born as the plainer David John Moore Cornwell, established a formidable reputation as one of the greatest writers of espionage novels, partly by virtue of having worked in intelligence himself. And this book is invariably included in lists of the best of his 26 novels. But it’s long, labyrinthine and, really, of appeal only to such readers.

With such status since the novel was first published in 1974, and then consistently in fresh decoration, it has probably been savoured already by almost everyone interested in this grey clandestine world, so perhaps this 2023 edition is aimed more at younger types to whom it may seem that the Cold War never really went away, even after the Iron Curtain fell in 1989.

Perhaps le Carré, who died in 2020, remains the subject of some little intrigue himself,  because as far as we know he never sufficiently explained his pen name. But it seems to be accepted why he needed one: he still worked for MI6, the British Secret Intelligence Service, when he wrote his first three books in 1961-63, and his bosses told him to change.

Over the years he gave various explanations for his choice of le Carré, finally contending that he could not remember which, if any, were true. One theory is that the alias was a private joke, and a simple one. For English readers, “le Carré” supposedly has continental allure, a whiff of danger or sophistication. But its literal translation implies the opposite: in French, “le carré” means “the square”- the rule follower, the law abider, the fuddy-duddy.

Le Carré’s spooks, particularly English ones, are seen as just this sort of perverse, paradoxical creature, squares who break all the rules and for the squarest reason: for God and Country, to preserve a whole world of rules. George Smiley, the protagonist in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and other le Carré books, is no one’s idea of a spy, which is perhaps what makes him such a natural. For a secret agent he’s as unobtrusive as they come, a deceptively bland middle-aged man, plump, ill-dressed and unhappy, leading an unglamorous life. But he’s also brilliant and relentless, and trusted and respected by his subordinates and colleagues.

Another matter of interest is the title, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”. This comes from the nursery rhyme “Tinker Tailor” published in 1695 and well known over the centuries to most children. It goes: “Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, Rich man, poor man, Beggar man, thief.” It was used to count objects saying each word in turn. Whichever word came last indicated either your future station in life or the occupation of the man you would eventually marry.

And so, we have author David Cornwell, born in Poole, Dorset, England, on October 19, 1931, educated abroad and at the University of Oxford before teaching French and Latin at Eton College from 1956 to 1958. In 1959 he became a member of the British foreign service in West Germany and stayed with the agency until 1964, leaving to write full-time.

While there his first book, ”Call for the Dead”, came out in 1961, introducing the shrewd but self-effacing Smiley. Cornwell’s/Le Carré’s breakthrough came with his third novel, ”The Spy Who Came In from the Cold” in 1963, though this one centred on another popular character, Alec Leamas, an aging British agent ordered to discredit an East German official. Unlike the usual glamorous spies of fiction, and thus rather like Smiley, Leamas is sketched as a lonely and alienated man, without a respectable career or a place in society.

Immensely popular, ”The Spy Who Came In from the Coldwas adapted into a highly successful film with Richard Burton and Claire Bloom in 1965, as were many of le Carré’s works. “Call for the Dead” was filmed as ”The Deadly Affair” in 1966 with James Mason and Simone Signoret, and “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”became a BBC Television seven-part series in 1979 starring Alec Guinness as Smiley, and then a film in 2011 with Gary Oldman taking the role of the master spy hunting down a Soviet mole in the British intelligence services.

Smiley has a counterpart in the Russian master spy Karla, his opposite in ideology but equal in almost all else. The man Smiley knew as “Control” is dead, and the young Turks who forced him out now run the “Circus”, the secret intelligence people. In the “Circus,” agents are “joes,” operations involving seduction are “honeytraps” and agents deeply embedded inside the enemy are “moles”. The latter is a word le Carré is credited with bringing into wide use, if not inventing it.

However, Smiley isn’t quite ready for retirement, especially when a pretty, would-be defector surfaces with a shocking accusation: a Soviet mole has penetrated the highest level of British Intelligence. Relying only on his wits and a small, loyal cadre, Smiley recognises the hand of Karla, his Moscow Centre nemesis, and sets a trap to catch the traitor.

“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”, which is a marathon read in itself at 385 pages, is in fact merely the first instalment of three novels known as the Karla trilogy, the other two being “The Honourable Schoolboy” (1977) and “Smiley’s People” (1979). A rather daunting estimate we saw somewhere is that It takes about 24 Hours and 28 minutes on average for a reader to consume the whole trilogy, and this would involve ploughing through some 366,730 words.

This full day of eye strain seems to be way below what we might estimate, and not something we plan to tackle anytime soon, thank you. For all the acclaim attached to le Carré for his style and for bringing a novelist’s eye into this secret world, he is foremost an espionage writer, and his appeal may not stretch much wider than that.

First-time readers could find they need a genuine interest in such gloomy and devious happenings, otherwise it’s all a bit inaccessible, static and unlikely to resonate.

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