Le Carré serves up British Intelligence in the buff (envelope)
By happy coincidence, ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy‘ turned up on one of my foraging expeditions to a secondhand bookshop in the same week that Lucy and I embarked upon our trek through the 100 Greatest novels list. And what a gem it is.
Rather like Raymond Chandler played at 33rpm, Le Carré’s prose is clipped and crisp. Skim the surface and one could be forgiven for thinking George Smiley and co. are terribly ordinary, bogged down in a beige world of bureaucracy. But beneath the drab palette of sepia and grey, dust and teabags, his intelligence agents trust no-one and reveal nothing, unless of course, it is their intention to.
If your vision of the Secret Service is largely informed by James Bond, your impressions won’t exactly be dashed, as anaesthetised by the banality of officialdom, although the brilliance lies in the subtle game-play, the finely cued questions and laying of false trails hidden beneath the external veil of routine work at the office.
Smiley is the grandmaster of spy chess. His wits are sharp but shielded, like razors lurking beneath the surface of a cup of cold canteen tea. He presents to the world an image of an average middle-aged man – dull, somewhat inadequate and resigned to the fact. Yet he misses nothing. He watches everything.
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 jarred body was like a promontory of rock; he could have sat that way all day, without stirring a muscle.
However, like all agents, Smiley has blind spots. He might be a genius at reading people – every pause, minor facial twitch – while disarming those he interrogates under his seemingly detached scrutiny, yet he is utterly hopeless at understanding or communicating with his wife on the most basic of levels.
I love unpicking plots and trying to second guess what will happen in a novel or a film, but I was firmly tangled in Le Carré’s web. I’d pick up on a phrase that had been mentioned at some point before that felt like a clue, but after trying to discover where, or who said what a few times, I gave up and decided to just enjoy the ride, and it was a tense one, at that.
My favourite scene is when Guillam, on Smiley’s instructions, has to surreptitiously copy Circus documents to try to uncover the identity of the ‘mole’ in the upper echelons of the organisation. What follows is nail-bitingly tense. The line of sweat running down his back is tangible as he nearly loses his nerve and risks getting caught at any moment by his colleagues milling around only feet away from his covert operation. At one point the tension breaks when Guillam pauses in his mission, to tut at the dust accumulating on a shelf of teabags. but a moment later we’re jolted right back into the claustrophobia of the moment, just in case we’d got too comfortable in there.
When I finished the book, I watched the film with Gary Oldman, Tom Hardy, Ciaran Hinds, Benedict Cumberbatch and Colin Firth, which despite the magnificent cast, I seem to remember receiving mixed reviews on its release in 2011. I thought it was a triumph. The colours, the use of symmetry in the scenes were a visual feast, which could be relished due to the slow pace of the film. Also, the slow pace and static nature of many of the scenes allowed the viewer the kind of detailed scrutiny of each of the individuals that Smiley suspects, and we’re given the opportunity to try and spot the facial tells for ourselves, as well as gradually building tension which was so in keeping with the pace of the novel.