John le Carré
John le Carré; drawing by David Levine

It is not always pleasant when events of one’s half-forgotten past come back in middle age, bite at the heart and stir up guilt. Ostrakova, a poor and apparently humdrum Russian woman of fifty who works in a Paris warehouse, is in fact the widow of a Russian defector who fled to Paris to join the Baltic émigrés in their struggle. She was a very young woman at the time. She was sentenced to five years in a Russian labor camp for complicity, knew she was unlikely to see her husband again, and became the mistress of a Jew she met in the camp and had a daughter by him. When amnesty is granted she gets a permit to go to France to see her husband who is dying of cancer, on condition that she report on the activities of the Paris dissidents. She has to leave her child behind as a hostage. She fakes a few reports. her husband dies, Glikman, the Jew—it turns out—dies also.

Ostrakova is left with the guilt she has felt since those days about having chosen to abandon the illegitimate baby she hardly remembers for the husband who was not its father and whom she loved. An itchy, sweating, furtive man has lately been following her in the street in which she lives. He has, she thinks, the peculiar stink of the Russian secret police. She had smelled it at her trial. He is a Soviet agent who interrogates her in a dirty bar and threatens her with a crude version of her story. She is frightened: even more when he says that the daughtr has grown up and has become a criminal living an immoral life because of the mother’s neglect. Then suddenly the enemy offers to be a benefactor: he will reunite the daughter, who is called Alexandra, with her mother if Ostrakova will sign papers of French naturalization. The French and Soviet embassies agree.

But two things disturb the poor woman’s excitement. Looking at the hazy photographs they have shown her of the child Ostrakova can see no trace of the fiery Glikman in her features; the child might be a corpse. All Ostrakova’s memories of her old friends come to her mind. She remembers the name of their old heroic leader, Vladimir, the General. She finds an address—he is in London—and writes to him for help. He has been noted for his chivalry and his love of women and his rage against injustice. Nor is she wrong; a dapper little hobgoblin of a man with a touch of the comic devil about him turns up. She thinks of him as a conjuror or magician. He is a messenger from the General. Secondly, an attempt is made by two men to throw her in front of a car in the street. When the General gets the news of this, he decides to act.

In this opening chapter of le Carré’s new book we could not ask for a plainer statement. But now we enter more deeply into the baffling spider’s web le Carré is so skilled in taking us across. At the very next step we are standing at night with the police on Hampstead Heath looking at the dead body of the General, his face obliterated by a bullet. And with us is standing George Smiley, alias Max, Standfast, Barraclough, any name he can get out of the bag, a portly man who doesn’t say much but whom the police look at with awe: until a few years before Smiley had been head of the British Secret Service but now he is in forced retirement. He has in fact been called out of the London Library where he is consoling himself by translating German baroque poetry and writing a monograph on the works of Opitz: he has known Germany inside out since his youth.

Why has the “Circus”—or whatever they call it—suddenly become so polite to him? He is a “has been” of the cold war, now out of fashion; détente has come in. The old obsession with émigrés and double agents has been dropped—they quarreled all the time among themselves, they were dotty and unreliable. They annoyed the Russians. The Secret Service has been reorganized by an overseeing group called the Wise Men under the eye of Whitehall and the influence of American talk of “open government”—anathema to Smiley who had a strong belief in “double agents.” (Le Carré is very sardonic about office politics.) Smiley has been called in, unwillingly, half condescendingly, because the new people in the Service have been caught out by the General’s death: the out-of-date old soldier had put in an urgent signal to “Max” and the office had failed to take it—something about the changeover of staff at lunch time and not getting the tape disconnected. In short they want Smiley to save their faces.


Spy stories have a good deal of the farrago in them even when they are as accomplished as le Carré’s and it would be impossible and unfair to give away his elaborate plot. Le Carré creates a manner which moves by suggestion, leaking a little at a time and gradually gathering all in, without reducing it all to a flat intelligence test or conundrum. He has got to make his implausible people plausible in their dirty and shabby game. In part he belongs to the romantic school of spy literature, and has a blokey, speculative, disabused yet fateful manner which recalls Conrad’s use of Marlow; he is good at loud talk, with an occasional apologetic leaning to the metaphysical. Le Carré is a romantic, for example, in joining the General and Smiley as the chivalrous and the good men, faced with the archfiend—discreetly referred to eventually as the Sandman—the legendary Baltic figure who puts even the strongest to sleep. He must convey that Smiley is sad, lonely, and haunted by a gnawing sense of failure, whereas the enemy has never failed and has indeed once gypped him, has once even inserted a defector in the British Service and into Smiley’s private life.

There is a tendency in the literature of espionage to create the battered Saint. One sees the metaphysical view coming in when Smiley is moving away from the horrifying corpse on Hampstead Heath; a simple police superintendent flashes his torch on Smiley’s face. Unlike your face or mine (the superintendent says to himself) it was not one face. More like a history of the human face.

More your whole range of faces. More your patchwork of different ages, people, and endeavours. Even—thought the Superintendent—of different faiths.

The superintendent becomes eloquent, but his thought becomes Marlow-ish in the last sentence:

An abbey, made up of all sorts of conflicting ages and styles and convictions. The Superintendent liked that metaphor the more he dwelt on it. He would try it out on his wife when he got home: man as God’s architecture, my dear, moulded by the hand of ages, infinite in his striving and diversity…. But at this point the Superintendent laid a restraining hand upon his own rhetorical imagination…. Maybe we’re flying a mite too high for the course, my friend.

A nice touch of British modesty and caution there, but we can guess that the superintendent’s pause is an actor’s: there is something even stranger to say about that face. As it looked down at the head of the dead émigré leader, himself a legend, the superintendent notices Smiley’s face was oddly moist. This sometimes happened to the superintendent himself and the lads when they had to deal with the horrors of criminal assault or the rape of infants. You don’t get a fit of histrionics, you don’t throw up, as young policemen do: you put your hand to your face and find it is moist.

You wondered what the hell Christ bothered to die for, if He ever died at all.

Marlow again: better take the day off if you start feeling like that or you’ll start roughing up people. Fortunately fat little Smiley (who so often wipes his glasses and is red-eyed because he sits up half the night) is alive at the end of the book. If he died we might get a whiff of something like the odor of sanctity. It is knowing of le Carré to palm off the mystical suggestion on a cop. For Smiley’s melancholy detachment is not godlike. He is a “case man” if there ever was one. Looking back in his lonely evenings on his private misery—his wife has “teams” of lovers and has injured his heart and career by going to bed with his closest colleague, who became a double agent and defector—he reflects that he has “sacrificed his life to institutions.” If he is humane in a nasty trade and has seen a lot of dead men, he does not mourn for the dead. He mourns for the living. He is patient and cunning in the minute detail; he looks into the human being first. He is a pluralist.

What a man like Smiley needs is an enemy, a fanatical monist who stops at nothing: there may be a moment when rigid fanaticism breaks down, overstrained by its inhuman excess. And there is one murderous absolutist whom he failed to trap in Delhi years ago, high up in the Moscow services. The professional Smiley burns to reverse that failure and, indeed, for revenge, but not murder. Slowly we scent this villain in the seemingly extraneous case of poor Ostrakova and the General.


Le Carré is a talking writer. He talks the methodical Smiley into seedy flats and villas in London; to Paris, the brothel quarter outside Hamburg, and its sea marshes, to Copenhagen, a small bank in a Swiss town, to the finale in the Turkish quarter of West Berlin close to the infamous Wall. The more le Carré and his characters talk, the more silent, of course, is Smiley. What a listener as he waits to hear a trivial item that will drop into his jigsaw. The jargon of espionage comes out in slangy arguing in London where we are let in on the professional code—the “footmen,” the “lamplighters,” the “hardmen,” “hoods,” “vicars,” “babysitters,” and things like the “burnings” and the “honey-trap” and the art of making “legends” or fake biographies. We are among false biographers, born for the shifty life, the triple personality, sellers of false information and fantasies, sketching their way along, living by the gamble. Take Otto Leipzig, the play actor, who adopted that surname because he was once happy in the jail of that city. He has two hundred aliases.

“Otto Leipzig never settled anywhere in his life,” said Toby with contempt. “George, that guy’s a drifter, a total bum. Dresses like he was a Rothschild, owns a cat and a bicycle. Know what his last job was, this great spy? Night-watchman in some lousy Hamburg cargo house somewhere!”

Toby, also known as Hector and Benati, now runs an “international” gallery in the “naughty end of Bond Street,” selling “Arab” paintings. When Smiley drops in creditors are disputing upstairs. Toby warns Smiley of Otto, but is longing to rejoin the dangerous game:

“George…you got to hear me. So you pulled me from out the gutter once in Vienna when I was a stinking kid. I was a Leipzig. A bum. So you got me my job with the Circus. So we had a lot of times together, stole some horses…. So now what do you want to do, suddenly? Play kiss-kiss with an old crazy General who’s dead but won’t lie down and a five-sided comedian like Otto Leipzig! What is this? The last cavalry charge on the Kremlin suddenly?”

We meet the lesbian Connie and her girlfriend Hils. They have both worked in the Circus, but now, in their retirement, are keeping dogs in a hide-out in the English countryside. Connie’s is the best talking scene in the book, indeed the key to it, for drink has made her relive all the intrigues to which she and the Circus were a party. She becomes operatic. She takes a breath and sounds off in the voice of a Cockney tart:

“Where were we? I know. Up in that aeroplane with the Ginger Pig. He’s on his way to Vienna, he’s got his trotters in a trough of beer. Looks up, and who does he see standing in front of him like his own bad conscience but his dear old buddy of twenty-five years ago, little Otto, grinning like Old Nick. What does Brother Kirov né Kursky feel? we ask ourselves, assuming he’s got any feelings. Does Otto know—he wonders—that it was naughty me who sold him into the Gulag?… Kirov likes Otto. Loves him, doesn’t he, Hils? They’re a proper pair of raving whatsits, same as us. Otto’s sexy, Otto’s fun, Otto’s dishy….”

She turns to Hils:

“Kirov was bored, heart. Otto was life for him. Same as you are for me. You put, the spring into my stride, don’t you, lovey? Hadn’t prevented him from shopping Otto, of course, but that’s only nature, isn’t it?”

Still gently swaying at Connie’s back, Hilary nods in vague assent.

“And what did Kirov mean to Otto Leipzig?” Smiley asked.

“Hate, my darling,” Connie replied. “Pure, undiluted hatred. Plain, honest-to-God black loathing. Hate and money. Those were Otto’s two best things. Otto always felt he was owed for all those years he spent in the slammer.”

And Smiley remembers Otto had “a waiter’s anger.” What did Kirov want Otto to do with the émigrés? Connie replies: “He wanted a legend for a girl,” a cover story: the reasons for the offer to Ostrakova become a little clearer. In fact, Otto was preparing “a honeytrap.” That must have been in Hamburg: Smiley has the photograph of Kirov in such a trap in the St. Pauli brothel. The now immensely respectable owner, Herr Kretzschmar—an admirably drawn character who has also “stolen many horses” with Otto in his time—will be persuaded to identify the “filthy picture.”

A muddling narrative—one remembers what a mess television made of the narrative of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when Alec Guinness was in the part. Prose is always superior to film. Where le Carré is clear is in the large set scene. The evocation of Hamburg, St. Pauli, the sea marshes and their shabby camping sites and yacht basins where the semi-derelicts and hooligans hang about when the season’s over, is eerie and precise. And now Smiley is really on the scent, the speed and cunning of his youth return to him as he jumps into action—yet with the indifference of middle age. He’ll run into the murder of one of our dubious friends on a drifting boat, note the yellow chalk mark of the Circus on its side, and a string with an old shoe hanging in the water. The riffraff mock him, but he knows what may be in the toe of that shoe.

Here le Carré shows a sharp eye for historical ironies. Spies may be anarchists by nature and outside the law, but contemporary civilization has its own anarchic hooligans. They’ve cannibalized the dead man’s car. Now they try to break up Smiley’s car. He’ll have a job escaping into Denmark with the lid of the car’s boot rattling on the road. Attractive to the police who don’t like spies. The police will be at the airport. But Smiley has the art of confirming false bookings in other names at airports and takes a modest trip to Denmark by rail under his own.

There are two other decisive set scenes in the small town of Thun in Switzerland. There will be an encounter at a small bank. Who is going to be “burned” in this trim little spa?

It was a day of darkening blankness. The few pedestrians were slow shadows against the fog, and lake steamers were frozen in the locks. Occasionally the blankness parted enough to offer him a glimpse of a castle, a tree, a piece of city wall. Then swiftly closed over them again.

A good metaphor for espionage.

Snow lay in the cobbles and in the forks of the knobbly spa trees. The few cars drove with their lights on, their tyres crackling in the slush. The only colours were in the shop windows: gold watches, ski clothes like national flags.

Agents, like good writers, notice such things, being perhaps in something like the same double game.

He passed an English Tea-Room, and American-Bar, an Oasis Night-Club, each hyphenated, each neonlit, each a sanitized copy of a lost original.

And then Smiley sees a mail van—Toby, ex-Circus figure and vendor of “Arab art,” has turned up as agreed, indeed with the whole Circus masquerade, including girl skiers with cameras hidden in their haversacks. Toby had always made a point of stealing mail vans when on the job, saying no one notices or remembers them. Now we are at the dénouement: a nice little polite scene in a bank. Le Carré carefully records it, item by item; no blokey language now, but the decisive grab which will take our minds off a horrifying sight of a girl—the girl for whom Ostrakova was being used to provide cover and who has been turned into a “legend,” in a convent in the town. She is a brain-washed schizophrenic, confused by ideology, a double identity, and ghastly lust. We are approaching the finale as the defector walks across the bridge at East Berlin when, at the moment of victory, Smiley half wishes the East Germans will shoot his prey before he captures it himself.

The only set scene at which I squirm is much earlier when Smiley goes to visit his perpetually faithless wife—she has “a Celtic look,” whatever that is—whom he momentarily desires, but whom he can now do without. Perhaps he has gone to test his capacity to steel himself against being too human before pitting himself against an enemy who is almost inhuman. I prefer to hope that Smiley went to see her when he was in the mood that had possessed him in the London Library before the case started, the day when he was working on a monograph on the bard Opitz, and trying “loyally to distinguish true passion from the tiresome literary convention of the period”—and of the idea of espionage as sexy romance. This sounds more like “the best case man [I] had ever met,” as someone had once said to the superintendent on Hampstead Heath.

This Issue

February 7, 1980