Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

July 16, 2011 Comments Off on Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

I feel it’s only fair to warn you that I am about to atrociously abuse the word fine. It’s the best word I can think of to describe this book. It is fine like filigree, fine like miniature origami, fine like the distinction between lavender and periwinkle. It is well done but if you’re not paying attention it is very easy to miss the fineness of it. And for all its fineness, large chunks of the story are quite dull; it is like watching a giant buckyball be very finely crafted out of tiny slivers of blond wood. It doesn’t really look like anything, just a random assemblage of indistinguishable pieces, until the big parts start to come together in a pattern. And then you can admire it, if you can identify the pattern.

The writing is extremely fine, especially the parts not written like the anecdotes of a rambling retired British spy. It is worth pointing out that the author is as British as the story; the descriptions are very finely pointed. I get the impression that a Brit would have to put the book down every so often to savor the description of a new character, that every once in a while there is a paragraph that is such a subtle caricature of a certain type of Brit that the reader is supposed to be moved to admiring chuckles. But being an American I don’t have much of an appreciation for Scottish crustiness or Etonian expansiveness. I’m a little petulant, actually, because I feel left out of these best parts of the book.

It’s a strange read because while the writing (to someone who pays attention and can find the skill in it) is superb, the story is peculiarly ungripping. It is a greasy grey story whose details don’t stick to you; lots of it is told in interviews, where George Smiley, the retired spy brought in to find a Russian mole, tracks down someone who knew someone involved in the scandal that precipitated the death of so-and-so. This is the first of two major issues, I think: the story is so temporally broad that it’s difficult to show in a novel of less than a thousand pages. How do you tell it? With the thousands of characters that would be involved if you divided it up into scenes? In dry history-book narrative? Le Carré settled on multiple firsthand summaries, which I guess is all right. It’s not a problem, it’s just not a way most of us think of narrating a novel. The other issue is that the characters all run together. It doesn’t help that they’re British, so a) their names are all stolid British names that don’t stand out from one another and b) they are all stolid British men who don’t stand out from one another. It took me forever to figure out the difference between Bill Haydon and Peter Guillam, even though people who have read the book will laugh to hear it. It’s not that the characters aren’t interesting. (Well, some of them aren’t.) It’s that they aren’t naturally distinct; it’s that much of the narrated interaction takes place between coworkers who are not only using the jargon of their trade but speaking with the personality-less courtesy of proper British coworkers. It is a long time before you see many of them do something individual.

Finally, the spy part of the story is extremely difficult to follow, especially for someone who didn’t live through even the tail end of the Cold War. This book has reminded me once again that I have less than no aptitude for the spy business. Take note, CIA: you do not want me. The ramifications of finding out that a certain prominent agent was selected as courier for the Russian naval intelligence documents do not register in my brain. I never managed to remember what scalphunters or lamplighters or babysitters did. Even the climax of the book, where everything is getting wrapped up and spelled out, doesn’t really create a clear picture in my mind. I do appreciate it when authors choose not to insult my intelligence, but at the end of books like this, I feel kind of stupid. I still am not sure how some of the little loose ends got tied up. And it’s frustrating when the tone of the writing clearly indicates that something is being resolved, or the puzzle pieces are slipping into place, or one of the suspects has just been cleared by the new evidence, and I simply can’t get there on my own. After a time I gave up leafing back to figure out who Mendel was or what side Tarr was originally on. I just soldiered on and pieced it together like a vague old woman. Near the end, one of the characters keeps thinking he sees someone shadowing them, and you’re not sure whether he really does or not until at the end of a chapter Le Carré references one last piece of the puzzle—the identity of the watcher. And then never brings it up again. What did I miss?? What the hell?!

All this said, I did not really dislike the book. It is a fine quiet read, good for calm cloudy days when you have nothing better going on… but I have read other quiet reads that don’t make you feel the need to attend remedial spy school. (“This is called a double agent, boys and girls…”) It did, however, make me want to read more Le Carré, something about people and not spies, because it seems to me that he does people very, very well.


“It was then, I think, that an extraordinary feeling of unease began to creep over me. The heat was really getting to me. The stench was terrible and I remember listening to the pat-pat of my own sweat falling onto the iron table. It wasn’t just his silence; his physical stillness began to get under my skin. Oh, I had known defectors who took time to speak. It can be a great wrench for somebody trained to secrecy even towards his closest friends suddenly to open his mouth and spill secrets to his enemies. It also crossed my mind that the prison authorities might have thought it a courtesy to soften him up before they brought him to me. They assured me they hadn’t, but of course, one can never tell. So at first, I put his silence down to shock. But this stillness—this intense, watchful stillness—was a different matter. Specially when everything inside me was so much in motion: Ann, my own heartbeats, the effects of heat and travel…”

“I can understand,” said Guillam quietly.

“Can you? Sitting is an eloquent business; any actor will tell you that. We sit according to our natures. We sprawl and straddle, we rest like boxers between rounds, we fidget, perch, cross and uncross our legs, lose patience, lose endurance. Gerstmann did none of those things. His posture was finite and irreducible, his little jagged body was like a promontory of rock; he could have sat that way all day, without stirring a muscle. Whereas I—” Breaking out in an awkward, embarrassed laugh, Smiley tasted the wine again, but it was no better than before. “Whereas I longed to have something before me—papers, a book, a report. I think I am a restless person, fussy, variable. I thought so then, anyway. I felt I lacked philosophic repose. Lacked philosophy, if you like. My work had been oppressing me much more than I realised; till now. But in that foul cell I really felt aggrieved. I felt that the entire responsibility for fighting the cold war had landed on my shoulders. Which was tripe, of course; I was just exhausted and a little bit ill.” He drank again.


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