Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Book Review: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, by John le Carre

(Note: this article was originally published in two parts on www.lastwordblog.blogspot.com.)

An obvious fact: Great literature connects the particular with the universal, the banal with the sublime, the mortal with the transcendent. The alchemy of fiction bridges little, familiar things with big, awesome things.

Without thematic transcendence, Moby Dick would just be an extremely long story about a crazy guy trying kill a whale. And without the particulars of Ahab, Starbuck, Ishmael, the Pequod, etc. it would have just been a tortuous, poetical, inscrutable essay on Fate and Mortality and, uh, stuff: half Schopenhauer, half Walt Whitman: the most turgid BS conceivable. Or take Demons (aka The Possessed): like a grown-up version of Ayn Rand, Dostoevsky's characters explicitly discuss the very themes (i.e. Atheism, Justice, Faith, etc.) for which they themselves are metaphors. Lose the themes, and the story becomes an espionage soap opera; lose the plot and characters, and the story become a long, pompous essay.

Or consider Camus' The Plague: it's all very well for him to write in his essay The Rebel that "When he rebels, a man identifies himself with other men and so surpasses himself..." But this cannot convey the moral authority with which Dr. Rieux, physician to the plague-ridden town of Oran, states:

There's no question of heroism in all of this. It's a matter of common decency. That's an idea which may make some people smile, but the only means of fighting a plague is--common decency...[I]n my case I know that it consists in doing my job.

For a Europe still in shock at the atrocities of the second World War (not to mention a present that's got plenty of its own atrocities), the struggles of Dr. Rieux and the townfolk of Oran provide an all-too-apt metaphor for the human situation. And we know--because The Plague and The Rebel are essentially the same book, except that one's fiction and one's an essay--that Camus simply couldn't get at the big issues of Meaning and Death and Solidarity in the same way without the slippery, associative logic of fiction.

This is how fiction tricks us: by connecting the particular to the universal (in the same way that, say, a photograph can connect a small object in the foreground to a large landscape in the background), meaning is created.

So it is with le Carre's spy stories. Sure, his plots are wound as tight as Swiss watches. Sure, questions introduced in the first chapters get pulled higher and higher, dangling over the reader's head, tantalizing. And, yes, sure: any spy story with nighttime pistols, tragic loves, and Shakespearean power struggles is surely somewhat escapist. Pudgy, old, meditative George Smiley may not be the anti-James-Bond so much as the believable James Bond, in the same way that 'realistic' films like Black Hawk Down and Gettysburg seduce the audience into the fantasy of Glorious War more effectively than GI Joe or Red Dawn precisely because of their putative accuracy. As the audacity of a protagonist's adventures decreases, their plausibility increases.


Still, I tell you this: le Carre is a writer for the ages. Le Carre is our Joseph Conrad.

In Lord Jim, for instance, themes of guilt, redemption, courage and chance are woven into the story of the titular Jim, whose moment of youthful weakness haunts him to the ends of the Earth. When we see Jim sweating at his trial, or hopefully growing into the hero he wishes to be, or caught between the story of who he was and the story of who he's become, we see a discussion of big, important questions about how to live as a human being, a discussion that isn't reducible to an expository essay. And this discussion is built up within a straightforward adventure story: a dashing hero fights natives and pirates in an exotic locale. Conrad uses the nautical adventure story as the scaffold on which he builds his high-fallutin' Literature.

Le Carre does the same with spy stories. In Tinker we see a straightforward plot unfold from a simple premise: there's a mole in the highest echelons of British intelligence, and a retired genius quietly returns to give chase. Let's be clear: this is the same plot as the first Mission: Impossible film. This plot could not be more recognizable.

And yet in le Carre's hands, it sheds gold: Percy Alleline and his cabal of usurpers echo Julius Caesar's Brutus and his senators; the mole, orphaned by his own society, a latter-day Richard III ("...since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain..."); the inscrutable Karla, lord of Soviet intelligence, fascinates with his 'immoderate fanaticism' and seemingly-bottomless resources.

And George Smiley, le Carre's best-known protagonist, sniffing around the circumstances of Control's ouster like an unsexy Hamlet. Smiley, to my eye, is basically a contemporary moral hero: in the amoral world of Cold War espionage, he fumbles through, trying to do what's necessary or, failing that, to at least not make things worse. See this scene in which he lies in wait for the mole he's hunting:

Like an actor, he had a sense of approaching anti-climax before the curtain went up, a sense of great things dwindling to a small, mean end; as death itself seemed small and mean to him after the struggles of his life. He had no sense of conquest that he knew of. His thoughts, as often when he was afraid, concerned people. He had no theories or judgements [sic] in particular. He simply wondered how everyone would be affected; and he felt responsible.

Smiley's good at exactly one thing, and that's his Zen-like approach to intelligence. Everything else in his life--from his marriage to his retirement to the simplest social meetings--is a mess. Yet for all that, he accomplishes much more than his peers--mostly because he doesn't make things worse. Slowly, methodically plodding through his work, courteous to a fault, without a vindictive bone in his body, Smiley strives to understand. Only then does he act.

If that's not moral, I don't know what is.

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