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Of all the fictional characters that have stayed vivid in my mind, long past turning the last page or seeing the final credits, George Smiley is among the most vivid. But unlike some of the memorable characters that typically populate my imagination – willful people like Tony Soprano or Elizabeth Bennet, say – Smiley is not a person of decisive action. In some ways, he’s about as un-vivid as you can get.

Quiet, thoughtful and measured rather than impulsive, Smiley is a high-ranking officer in the British intelligence service. He’s fat and wears glasses, and he’s the lead character in novelist John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which was published in 1974 and the basis of a new movie version (releasing 09 December across the US) of the same name.

cover art

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

John le Carré

(Penguin; US: Oct 2011)

cover art

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Director: Tomas Alfredson
Cast: Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, Tom Hardy, John Hurt, Toby Jones, Mark Strong, Benedict Cumberbatch, Ciarán Hinds, David Dencik

(Studio Canal; US theatrical: 9 Dec 2011; 2011)

The story is one that at first seems quaintly outdated in the post-Cold War era: a high-ranking member of British intelligence has been feeding secrets to the Soviets, betraying his county, his friends and the cause of western democracy. The question is which of five possible suspects is the mole? Mild-mannered George Smiley is brought out of retirement in to find the answer.

I can hear 20-somethings yawning now. Or maybe not: while the Cold War is a distant concept to today’s younger moviegoers, betrayal remains eternal. For fear of spoiling the movie, I won’t give away which man did the deed, (and it’s definitely a man’s world in early Le Carre books). The novel foreshadows the identity of the mole in many ways, including an offhand comparison to Dorian Gray early in the story. Such an allusion works on one level to suggest a dual existence, and on another level to call to mind unconventional, predatory sexuality.

As it turns out, Le Carre’s mole is as much a double agent in bed as he is in espionage. Then again, what is espionage if not getting into bed with people—physically or ideologically—for purposes of betrayal?

Betrayal lurks at every corner in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, the book. There’s the rogue agent, for example, who seduces a Soviet spy, only to extract secrets from her before she is apprehended and flown home to face a firing squad. Then there’s George’s wife, Ann, chronically unfaithful and indiscreet about it, to add insult to injury. And there are a few other surprises that I won’t betray.

Betrayal is not the only theme in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, that might strike a chord among people too young to remember the Cold War. The story also offers myriad reminders that war is a dirty business, whether it’s a Cold War or its 2.0 version, the clash of civilizations. For example, when Smiley finally ensnares the traitor, he forbids any torture of him, bringing to mind our era of rendition, waterboarding and the rest.

Another distinctly contemporary theme is that of oppressed Czechoslovakians and the Prague Spring, the eponymous reference for the Arab Spring now unfolding.

And when the traitor, upon being caught, reveals that one key reason for his double cross was immense hatred for US hegemony, you can’t help but think of the recent spate of British spy dramas that vilify the US on the same grounds, including The Ghost Writer, Page Eight and various MI5 (Spooks in the UK) episodes.

But if Americans are now the bad guys in British spy dramas, they were generally more annoying than menacing in Le Carre’s Cold War novels. True villainy was instead reserved for Karla, the mysterious KGB spymaster, whom Smiley tries at one point to entice into betrayal. Smiley’s failure at this endeavor only adds to his humanity, as revealed in a rare encounter between the two in the novel.

In the scene, Karla has been detained by Smiley’s boss, Control, after he picked up a tip that Karla was in India and in trouble with his superiors in Moscow. Smiley has gone to visit him in jail to offer asylum, in exchange for key secrets. The visit goes poorly, with Karla saying little and turning down the deal. Smiley, normally so reserved, uncharacteristically talks too much and ends up revealing his own weakness, which Karla later exploits. Here’s a wonderful depiction of the scene from the 1979 BBC production:

Looking back on the fateful meeting, Smiley reflects:

“I behaved like a soft fool. The very archetype of a flabby western liberal. But I would rather be my kind of fool than his, for all that.” He adds, “It’s odd to reflect that all the time he was looking at me, he could have been thinking of Gerald [the code name for the mole]. I expect they’ve had a good laugh about it since.”

Laughed at, betrayed, cuckolded, Smiley nevertheless remains in control of his game in Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. In the end, he gets his man, relying on such unglamorous traits as brilliant memory, the ability to listen, and dead-on deductive powers. In identifying the mole, he cleans house at the “Circus”, the novel’s nickname for British intelligence, and re-establishes preeminence among his colleagues. Still, none of these achievements can reverse the damage a traitor can do over the course of 30 years.

* * *

In real life, there wasn’t a highly placed British traitor secretly working for the Soviets. There were five of them. They were called the Cambridge Spy Ring and had been recruited in college in the ‘30s. They didn’t adhere to the sexual mores of the day, and they appeared to enjoy life in the heart of the British establishment, while covertly detesting it. The most notorious of the Cambridge Five, Kim Philby, is often seen as the model for Le Carre’s mole, though unlike in the novel, Philby escaped to Moscow before getting caught.

He died there but not before asking to meet Le Carre, whose writing he admired. Le Carre declined, which has surprised some critics. With so much moral ambiguity in Le Carre’s spy books, after all, why let a little treason get in the way of meeting the most famous spy of his day? The answer, according to Le Carre was simply betrayal – of country, colleagues and field agents who paid the price of Philby’s actions. Le Carre found it hard to overlook “the incidental little matter of those he sent to their deaths.”

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