Thursday, 15 December 2011

Book: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

I reread this recently having seen Thomas Alfredson’s recent film version. I thought the film captured the brooding style and atmosphere of the novel very effectively, but I’d defy anyone to work out the story from the film alone (even following the great TV series with Alec Guinness is quite a mental workout). The plot has been called labyrinthine, but that’s the wrong cliché. Reading the book is like putting together a jigsaw, though without having the overall picture in front of us. This in fact is one of the great qualities of Le Carré, who respects the intelligence of the reader and doesn’t over-explain (Spooks this is not).

Two pieces of evidence (Rikki Tarr’s story and the calamitous Prideaux mission to Czechoslovakia) indicate that intelligence is being passed from the British Secret Service to Russia. George Smiley, victim of new management, is approached in retirement and asked by a ministerial representative to investigate. The curious thing is that the story shouldn’t work. It’s a whodunnit, but we can’t care very much who did it as the suspects only make brief appearances and are generally an unsympathetic bunch. We can’t follow the trail of evidence very clearly, as this consists of night after night of analysis of intelligence data, which we are mercifuly spared (most of the detective action consists of Smiley reading documents in a hotel). And yet the novel is diabolically gripping. What holds us are the set-pieces, the rhythm of the writing, and above all the sense of espionage and betrayal spreading like the London fog. Lady Ann’s betrayal of Smiley is a rather obvious extension of the theme, but then there is the schoolboy learning to spy, Peter Guillam’s doubts about his partner, even the clumsy lovers trying to make a discreet entrance to a house in Oxford. Subterfuge has become the usual way of things. Beyond the terror of a world where trust has vanished is the terror of real violence in the shadows (we are passingly told about networks being wrapped up and have to decide whether to let our imaginations dwell on the implications of this or not). Cold War suspicion is as omnipresent as the darkness and rain that are the characters’ natural habitat. The values at stake have disappeared into weary worldliness and the patois of the officer class. Even the mole’s apologia turns out to be little more than a string of tired platitudes. The novel is a brilliant portrait of postwar, post-imperial Britain as a dreary spectre of its former self.

Films have no obligation to follow books with exactitude (why should they?), and I thought Alfredson’s variations were inventive: the arrest of Prideaux was suitably tense, and interestingly different to both book and series. I liked the edge of real menace in Gary Oldman’s Smiley, and the thrilling atmosphere of key scenes (Guillam’s visit to the archive may be the most exciting piece of document retrieval on film). One change which was puzzling, though, was Prideaux’s harshness to Jumbo at the end. I take it this is meant as tough love, as he wants to save the boy from the spying path, but the understanding between teacher and pupil at the end of the novel seems to represent an important hint of hope and decency after the miasma of deceit.