My first exposure to any of John le Carre’s work was in last year’s film adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy, starring Gary Oldman (who received a well-deserved Best Leading Actor Oscar nomination for his work). Since I first saw the film, I’ve wanted to read the book, which I finished a couple hours ago. The film doesn’t really do it justice.
From the start, we see intricate pictures painted of the main players: Smiley, Prideaux, Guillam, Tarr, the Circus. What makes them tick? They each have a personal stake, a personal agenda. This is a story that revolves around a dangerous question: ‘Who is spying on the spies?”
To find the answer you are fully thrown into the secret world of espionage. You feel the uncertainty around every corner, the tension in every conversation, the constant threat of a watchful eye overtaking you. Lamplighters, scalp-hunters, janitors, and lotus-eaters await down every street and dark alley.
George Smiley is one of the best crafted characters of modern times. A quiet strength and creeping doubts tussle in his brilliant mind, as he sits holed up, under another name, in a rickety old motel, making phone calls, watching, reading, waiting, and finally getting his moment to strike. He is the ultimate spy, the strong, silent, spy, someone that anyone could trust if they needed help.
And of course, there is the magnificent Karla, staying one step ahead, who taunts the weakness of Smiley’s personal life in front of him and his men. This is the ultimate chess game, a battle for peace and security in a cold war. And you get to know the rest of the pieces. The iconic Hayden, the ambitious Alleline, the tragic Prideaux, the troublemaker Tarr. They are all pieces on the board, and le Carre sets the game. This is the war behind the war.
This is a wonderful book if you want to absorbed into a foreign world that is grounded in our every day thoughts, fears and dreams. George Smiley could really be any of us, but so could Karla, depending on our choices.