open the pages, read the words, savor the magic
It’s an odd adjective to choose perhaps, considering the book doesn’t really contain anything fearful or violent, but it managed to bring shivers down my spine once the story gets going and the secrets come out. Part of the reason why the book affects me so much is because I know that it was written by a man who used to do the same thing his characters in the book does, so I know he wasn’t just making things up the way JK Rowling made Quidditch when he wrote about what his main character, George Smiley, does for a living. Knowing that he had the background, an actual job in the actual world of espionage, added to the book a sense of realism that got me into thinking, “How can they act so normal and have seemingly normal lives when their jobs are part of a vast system that holds up the safety and well-being of a country?”
Because le Carré’s characters aren’t James Bond, you see? They are not glamorous. They are not well-dressed or fashionable. In my mind, they look like how they sound in the book: old, dull and unattractive. They’re people who, physically, blends into walls and backgrounds. Their movie faces might have stars like Benedict Cumberbatch, Colin Firth, John Hurt and Gary Oldman. But these people, in the books, to me look like they’re even less attractive than the ugliest extra on a film set. Smiley is a jilted husband, a boring retiree and a cunning operator… and in the first few chapters, I had doubts that he would be able to save the Circus because he’s not at all like a hero. He’s nobody special. He’s just Smiley. He could be my grandfather (actually, I think my grandfather might just know a few Smileys in his lifetime, if not one himself). And yet, once he starts digging deep, his brilliance shows. He’s a very fascinating character that way and brings to mind the expression, “It’s always the quiet ones.”
Intriguing characters aside, though, the book is masterfully written. It has style and class and well worth the accolades it has accumulated over the years. le Carré has always been touted as the father of modern espionage fiction and it shows in the writing. The language is a little archaic and the jargons a tad pretentious, but they’re still exciting (in fact, there’s so much ‘Britishism’ here that practically make my anglophile self wet my knickers while reading) and they make you wish you could get away using them in daily life. For a book that seems to be bordering on over-population with a character, it’s actually less confusing than one might actually think because le Carré makes sure to let his story walk on a leisurely pace. It might be considered as ‘slow’ but to me, the fact that the story doesn’t move forward quickly – there are too many flashbacks and interludes in the form of character observations – makes it easier for me to follow.
It could be that I was just fed up with espionage books of the noughties that feature a lot of blood and violence and everything Middle East. Some of them rang true and managed to capture the zeitgeist of the modern war on terror but, frankly, they are all exhausting to read because it seems that authors today – like Hollywood filmmakers – care more about sensationalism than actual intelligence (by ‘intelligence’ I mean that both literally and figuratively). So discovering le Carré’s Cold War-era espionage fiction is actually like a breath of fresh air. Here’s a spy novel that doesn’t blow their way to the end. It’s a spy novel that teaches you to think along with the characters and I find that sort of thing heady and stimulating.
The only thing that I objected from the book – although, again, this is probably my own shortcomings rather than the book’s – was that some of these characters and Smiley in particular had already been introduced in previous le Carré books. I felt like I was joining the party halfway through, have no choice but to awkwardly join a conversation as to not appear lonely and no one bothered to tell me what they were talking about in the first place. I find myself wishing I’d known Smiley a little bit better from before. I wanted to know what he was like before. Sure, le Carré himself revised Smiley’s history from the early books where he appeared to fit him better into the story of this book where he first had his major starring role, but I just felt as if there was a huge chunk of history missing from there.
Of course the good thing about my dissatisfaction is that it’s pushing me to pick up the earlier le Carré novels, in particular The Spy Who Came In From The Cold. (As if this was not predictable!)
I can never thank the Gary Oldman-starring film enough for giving me the push I need to jump into the wonderful world of le Carré fiction. Now that I’m here, I don’t want to get out. The Cold War is not an era of history I want to have repeated but damn if it’s not fun to relive it vicariously through the writings of a master author/former spy. Consider me officially intrigued. Bring on the cold.
Notes on certain characters:
1. I had two guesses of who the mole/double agent was. I was wrong on both accounts.
2. I’m surprised that Bill Haydon is written as a bisexual. I absolutely did not expect that.
3. I really, really loathed Smiley’s ex-wife, Ann.
4. When he first appeared in the story, I felt like I wanted to give Ricki Tarr a good cleaning.
5. Jim Prideaux is my second favorite character in the book next to Smiley. I feel strongly about him. For him.
* Originally posted on Goodreads, 26 January 2012.