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Le Carré’s New War

The Night Manager

by John le Carré
Knopf, 429 pp., $24.00

The end of the cold war is a hard bargain. Certainly it is an advantage to mankind that our chances of being vaporized into radioactive mist have been reduced considerably, and yet, on the debit side, we have lost one of the greatest characters in the history of the espionage novel, George Smiley: OBE, master of the Cambridge Circus, combatant of the Soviet spymaster Karla, and world-weary creation of John le Carré. For a half century Smiley made a career of the artful comeback. But unless le Carré enjoys the torture of geriatrics, we cannot reasonably expect him to prod his creation from retirement for yet another adventure. “It’s over, and so am I,” Smiley wistfully told a graduating class of spies in the 1990 valedictory novel, The Secret Pilgrim. “Time you rang down the curtain on yesterday’s cold warrior. And please don’t ask me back, ever again. The time needs new people. The worst thing you can do is imitate us.” We imagine our hero now slumped by the fire at his house on Bywater Street, poring once more over Goethe and Grimmelshausen, absently polishing his glasses with the fat end of his tie.

The Great Game was good sport—for the players as well as for us. Even before the Soviet empire collapsed in a heap, the inhabitants of le Carré’s novels wailed like Spanish widows whenever they were driven from the secret world. Spies who were shelved for reasons of age or scandal raged against the light of the common world and cried out for the murk of the shadows. They, like the readers for whom they performed, could hardly imagine a life without the cramped and somber universe of obscure victories and shaming defeats. For them, the world of cold war espionage was an extension of boarding school days, a realm of enforced intimacy, private language, and class distinctions. Who could face the tedium of retirement by the telly after the hale days of “honey pots,” “duckdives,” “water games,” “double-double games,” “reptile funds,” and “Moscow rules”? What pleasure was there in baby-sitting the neighbor’s brats when one has baby-sat a Czech spy? Connie Sachs, the revered analyst who had been known at the Circus as “Mother Russia,” was just one who positively wept over her banishment to civilian life. Forced out of the secret service in a time of constant scandal, she descended into drink and depression at her pet-infested cottage in Oxford. “I hate the real world, George,” Connie Sachs told Smiley. “I like the Circus and all my lovely boys.”

Now Götterdämmerung is past and the real world is all we have. It is all Connie Sachs has and it is all John le Carré has. The new complications are threatening and promise little entertainment. We have entered an era of Balkan chaos, fundamentalist terrorism, ecological apocalypse, international narco-business, runaway population growth, and runaway ignorance, and where is the genre fiction in all that? We may yet discover it. But as le Carré’s latest novel, The Night Manager, proves, even the most imaginative among us are having a hard time adjusting to life without the familiar landscapes and verities of the cold war.

Le Carré, who had a short career in the British secret service, and his hero, Smiley, who had a long and more glorious one, share a qualified sense of satisfaction at the end of the struggle with Moscow. Both of them are pleased at the fall of a murderous, wasting regime yet dubious about the price of victory and the role espionage may have played in it. In The Secret Pilgrim, Smiley tells the freshly minted spooks, “The purpose of my life was to end the time I lived in. So if my past were still around today, you could say I’d failed. But it’s not around. We won. Not that the victory matters a damn. And perhaps we didn’t win anyway. Perhaps they just lost. Or perhaps, without the bonds of ideological conflict to restrain us any more, our troubles are just beginning.”

In May, le Carré addressed a somewhat less idealistic group, the Boston Bar Association, saying,

When people tell me I am a genre writer, I can only reply, “Yes, but the cold war was a genre war.” And now, thank God, my element, my genre, is no longer at the center of our concerns. Though the spies spy on, they cannot impress us as they used to. The same, it has been said, goes for me. You may have read about my premature demise. Well, even if it were true, which it isn’t, you wouldn’t see me crying in my beer. Spying was the passion of my time. I was there, I felt some of it on my own body. I reported on it. And as I grew away from it, and recollected it in tranquillity, I made it my bit of earth, my context, my way of looking at life.

Le Carré made the cold war his bit of earth no less than Wilfred Owen made the Great War his. He took elements of the “real” world of espionage and conflated them with his own inventions. To heighten the drama of all the missions in the novels and give them a political resonance, he exploited his audience’s anxious obsession with recent history and then magnified that anxiety into that queer pleasure of suspense. Smiley, for example, waged war against the legacy of the Cambridge Apostles as well as Moscow. He fell victim to, and then defeated, Bill Haydon, who acted as a mole for Moscow while occupying one of the highest positions in the British service.

All of Smiley’s qualities of probity, self-examination, and modesty contrasted with the arrogance and foolishness so prevalent in Whitehall and his own service. There are so many poseurs who put political expediency before truth in le Carré that the novels give a pretty accurate picture of why the West, despite its vast budgets, failed to understand the rotten state of the Soviet economy and what that might lead to. Although Smiley’s diction and schooling, even his marriage, were in the upper registers of the British caste system, he suffered from neither snobbery nor pomposity. Le Carré never told us much about Smiley’s origins or parents, except to say that he spent some time in Hamburg and was prepared for confirmation by a retired bishop. Life began, in the mid-1920s, at Oxford. Smiley served a set of values more than a class or blind patriotism. He reserved his greatest respect not for the leaders of the secret service, who risked nothing, but for the defectors and agents in the field who risked all.

Le Carré’s cold war novels are so tightly linked in atmosphere, characters, and episode that it is hard to imagine that he did not anticipate three or more books in advance. From Call for the Dead through The Secret Pilgrim, a span of three decades, le Carré was able to conceive a fictive realm so complete, so unlike anything else, that one returned to it with the same sort of pleasure and anticipation as one would a visit back to Chandler’s Los Angeles or Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. It was a realm of cheap hotels, farmhouses on some perilous border, deserted railway stations at four in the morning, safe houses rank with the smell of cigarette butts and the rising damp. Le Carré developed a vocabulary so quirky that some of the terms have since been adopted by the secret service. The scholar David Monaghan has even provided fans with a book-length glossary: Smiley’s Circus: A Guide to the Secret World of John le Carré (St. Martin’s Press, 1986).

But what elevated the series, above all, was the richness of the characters and the stylized interplay among them. The intimacy among spies was one of le Carré’s most curious themes, and perhaps the most peculiar relationship of all was the one between Smiley and Karla. Smiley once interrogated Karla in Delhi when they both were young, and, during that exchange, Karla borrowed, then pocketed, a cigarette lighter that had been a gift to Smiley from his wife, Ann. That lighter was the perfect symbol of Smiley and Karla’s almost total knowledge of each other and their war and their strange mutual admiration. When Karla is finally defeated, he lets the lighter tumble from his pocket to the street. Smiley, who has long since lost Ann, does not stoop to pick it up.

When the BBC broadcast versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People, with Alec Guinness as Smiley, it seemed right that the films each lasted well over five hours, the better to capture the stalking pace and half-light texture of the novels. In a sense, le Carré wrote the definitive version of the cold war, if only because his version of things, and his doubts and revulsions, made more human sense than the snippets of spy business we read about in the press.

At a time when Ian Fleming’s erotonuclear fantasies were the favorite reading of John Kennedy, le Carré had the moral decency to deglamorize a war that pretended to glamour. The fits of cinematic activity—the deceptions, the violence—came only rarely in the novels, and always somehow off to the side. Though we never knew what reality was in the spy game, le Carré’s books somehow reeked of verisimilitude. His characters suffered from the indignities of ordinary life and the privations of secrecy: boredom, defeat, humiliation, cynicism. In his failed marital life and the refuge of his modest academic pleasures, Smiley seemed at times a character in Cheever, though a spy, not a broker.

Beginning with Call for the Dead in 1961, Smiley appeared on the scene, fat, somber, and sad, a cuckold whose only remaining illusion was his wife, the promiscuous aristocrat Lady Ann Sercombe. He is a figure from the end-of-Empire—educated to rule, but appointed, in the end, to help run a humbled intelligence service and oversee the erosion of England. Smiley was recruited out of Oxford for wartime intelligence, and then rejoined the service instead of pursuing literary studies all because “of the revelations of a young Russian cipher-clerk in Ottawa [who] had created a new demand for men of Smiley’s experience.” (The reference is to Igor Gouzenko, whose defection in September 1945 led to the arrest of Klaus Fuchs and the flight of Burgess and Maclean.) Spying provided Smiley

with what he had once loved best in life: academic excursions into the mystery of human behavior, disciplined by the practical application of his own deductions…. Conversely it saddened him to witness in himself the gradual death of natural pleasure. Always withdrawn, he now found himself shrinking from the temptations of friendship and human loyalty; he guarded himself warily from spontaneous reaction. By the strength of his intellect, he forced himself to observe humanity with clinical objectivity, and because he was neither immortal nor infallible he hated and feared the falseness of his life.

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