I had never read a John Le Carre novel, and never had much interest in spy fiction, apart from watching Edward Woodward in Callan. But I arrived at a cottage in Somerset UK and found this numbered Penguin sitting on the shelf waiting to be read. Having started it I couldn’t put it down, and read the entire book in one sitting. I found the story gripping, with a momentum and pace which never abated.
The story is set in post-World War 2 Europe, at a time when West Germany was apparently being re-armed by America, and East Germany was occupied by Russia. It is never made clear who “the other side” is; they may be pro-Russian Germans, or Jews opposed to the resurgence of West Germany, or individuals who want Germany re-unified. The spy at the centre of the novel is wholly unattractive. He is old, overweight, and not cowardly exactly, but certainly not self-assured or physical. He is called George Smiley, and he is very much an anti-James Bond hero. Spying is presented as an occupation requiring brain power, thought, and deduction, with results limited by the actions of superiors who want unpleasant facts to disappear.
It was this cerebral aspect that initially caught my attention. A paragraph in the first chapter describes the consequences of developing one’s analytical capabilities, and it rings true. It is the gradual death of natural pleasure, the sense of becoming an observer rather than a participant. The need to understand takes over, so that everything that is observed or experienced is analysed for its motivation and intent. It happens automatically and can never be switched off.
The only disappointing part of the novel is the story of Smiley’s marriage. It is the vehicle through which this main character is introduced, and then it is barely mentioned again until the final chapter. It encloses the story while remaining completely separate from it, like a set of parentheses. This sense that the love interest was tacked on made it seem as if it was introduced according to some formula, one of the things that needed to be ticked off in an effort to widen the novel’s appeal.