For years, I’ve never been able to get past the first chapter of this spy novel, because the book opens with a long chapter in which a mysterious teacher arrives at a boarding school and wins the adoration of a much put-upon boy. The chapter seems so out of line with what the book is about that I actually wondered if there was something wrong with my copy of the book. But yesterday, I just decided to skip it and start with the second chapter, which is actually about, you know, spy shit.
And it was pretty interesting. I’ve read several of Le Carré’s spy novels before, so I know a bit about the milieu that they describe: Le Carré’s spies aren’t particularly sexy or brave or competent; they’re nebbishy civil servants who spend lots of their time engaging in back-office politicking. But he’s not writing farce. His characters do genuinely run covert operations and traffick in real peoples’ lives.
I’ve never read a Le Carré novel that was quite as quiet and colorless as Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, though. The whole book is a series of quiet back-office conversations as George Smiley goes through records, trying to figure out which of his colleagues is a high-level Russian mole. At times, it felt a bit too slow, but eventually I settled into the pacing and found a certain charm in it. In this book, I think that Le Carré purposefully tried to take some of the thrill out of the spy novel, so we could focus on the intricacy of the plots that people tried to run. In his preface, he writes that what he wanted to write about were the insane dynamics of the double-agent game: if you have an agent who’s inside an enemy intelligence service, then you want to gain good information from him, but you also want him to advance within that service and become more important. Thus, you need to feed the agent enough intelligence that he comes off as a golden boy within his own organization. As such, everything becomes a very delicate matter of figuring out exactly how you can turn an agency against itself and destroy its effectiveness as an intelligence-gathering operation.
Le Carré makes the plotting here look very simple. I mean, well, not exactly simple, but…organic. When everything is revealed, it all makes sense. However, I know (from becoming mired in plotting recently) that it must’ve been fiendishly difficult to line up all these pieces in just the right way.
I’m glad that I’ve finally gotten over this hump, especially because it means that I’m now free to tackle a few of his other novels.