Saturday, May 8, 2010

Smiley's People / by John Le Carré

John Le Carré is the pen name for David John Moore Cornwell, a former operative in the MI5 and MI6 departments of the British secret service who's been a full-time author of espionage novels for several decades. Le Carre's 1963 novel The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was an international best-seller and established the author as a luminary new talent in spy fiction. Numerous other successes would follow in later years. Among his all-time most popular works are those comprising "The Karla Trilogy" which document the pursuit of a rival Soviet agent, code name "Karla". Smiley's People (1979), the final book in the series, is a shining example of Le Carré at his best.

"Do you know why they call Karla 'The Sandman'? He has a way of putting to sleep whoever gets close to him."

George Smiley has effectually been "retired off" from his job with the British secret service department known as "The Circus" after an incident in which a rogue agent working under him, a mole, was caught leaking information to the enemy. But when an old friend and former allied agent Vladimir (code name "The General") desperately relays a message to special branch requesting a private rendezvous, The Circus has no choice but to recall George immediately. Though necessary precautions are taken by both parties to ensure confidentiality, Vladimir never makes the appointment and is later found dead, having been shot in the face at close range with no detectable details, clues or culprits. The Circus promptly dismisses the incident as a lost cause, politely insinuating that with Vladimir having been out of the loop so long, nothing of consequence could have been extracted from the former Soviet defector.

But Smiley knows his hold friend well, just as he himself has always known a great deal more than he ever lets on. He knows Vladimir wouldn't ruffle any feathers unless something were of the utmost importance. With a little snooping around and a few visits to some old friends, George is soon able to retrieve the message Vladimir was trying to relay, information which swiftly gets the attention of the bullish heads at the Circus and promptly re-immerses George into the murky realm of undercover operations. It's a world where casual, often dubious acquaintances hold the key to revelations and critical intelligence maneuvers are required by a man in the know, a man like George Smiley, a man who, ironically, now feels far more at home than he ever could in retirement. Swiftly taking the evidence left him by Vladimir and applying it to his own well-networked system of people and information, George proceeds through an intricate sequence of interconnected events, slowly becoming wise to the slippery trail of the ever-elusive Soviet super spy "Karla", the most instrumental USSR agent in the history of the Cold War.

James Bond, Jason Bourne and Jack Ryan have nothing, repeat nothing on George Smiley. Likewise for their respective creators (Ian Fleming, Robert Ludlum and Tom Clancy), whose ultra-glamourized, ever-romanticized concept of authentic intelligence barely gets past fancy gadgets and expensive apparel and could never compare to the fastidious, sveltly polished work of Le Carré. Smiley's People almost makes you wish the Cold War were still on. The material, while initially complex and extensive, becomes so mentally intriguing that the reader can't help but be engrossed by the structure of the story. And it achieves this absent of any explosive action sequences. The passive mannerisms, contemplative nature and deftly executed procedures of George Smiley--a figure the very antithesis of flashy cool; he's an old, unappealing, slow-speaking reject--offer a well-developed, uniquely alluring character who may seem solitary but could never be deemed a romantic "lone wolf" type as he must rely on, who else, his "people" for everything. The irreplaceable Alec Guinness stars as Smiley in the BBC's 1982 miniseries which took home 4 Emmy's and was nominated for 6 others.

No comments: