My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I just spent the Christmas vacation under the covers with a flu, rereading this collection of three of the "Smiley" novels (in a Norwegian translation, which isn’t quite the same thing, though the translator is good).
The arena John le Carré creates here (or, rather, reports from, since he was a part of the real thing for a while) is the stealthy and paranoid world of Cold War espionage and counter-espionage, with the physically unimpressive spy-hunter George Smiley as the absent-minded and socially inept anti-hero.
The three books follow each other, not unlike the three main parts of "The Lord of the Rings" (come to think of it, it shouldn’t surprise me if le Carré structured it this way on purpose): The first book (Thinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) concerns the hunt for a "mole" inside Circus, an thinly veiled version of MI6, defectors and all. The second has Smiley as a less central character, instead giving an operational agent named Jerry Westerby (the "Honourable Schoolboy" of the title) first billing, as he tries to locate and then secure an important Chinese defector through investigations during the final weeks of the Vietnam War. The third ("Smiley’s People") concerns Smiley’s attempt to penetrate the Soviet intelligence organization in a final battle with his nemesis, a the shady and very competent spymaster Karla.
I like these books for their accurate depiction of the fear underlying much of the cold war, the way "little people" become pawns in a game they (and, many times, not their bosses either) understand. Aside from the gloriously tragic figure of Jerry Westerby, the spy game is one of meticulous investigations, bureaucratic frustrations, occasional high hopes with correspondingly deep disappointments. How far can you go in order to win – can you sacrifice people, sometimes with their consent, for an uncertain victory in a cause you are no longer sure about? I think these three books are the best John le Carré wrote, with the possible exception of "The Little Drummer Girl". Reading them again brought back the haunting specter of the dictatorship next door, the nagging fear most people of my generation grew up with, the uncertain enemy with powerful weapons, fought by vicarious means with a realization that the individuals involved had very little to say in the big decisions.
The question remains – who, if anyone, had?