James Jesus Angleton, the legendary (and controversial) chief of CIA counterintelligence, described his work, borrowing a phrase from T. S. Eliot, as a “wilderness of mirrors.” In such a wilderness, it is difficult to discern between reality and reflection. Add the element of danger, and the wilderness induces paranoia in the viewer. The setting of John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is this wilderness of mirrors.
The story takes place in 1973. It opens with Jim Prideaux, former British agent, being hired as a substitute teacher at a boys’ prep school. “Control” (head of Britain’s intelligence service, MI6) has died, George Smiley (Control’s chief lieutenant) has been sacked, Operation Testify (Prideaux’s last op in Czechoslovakia) ended in abject failure, and “Circus” (MI6), has been reorganized under a new chief.
Then, a British agent named Ricki Tarr comes across information that the Soviets are running a mole in the Circus, who is code-named “Gerald.” Oliver Lacon, the Civil Service officer responsible for MI6 oversight, approaches Smiley and asks him to investigate. As the novel unfolds, Smiley discovers that there is a mole, he is a double agent feeding the Circus bad Soviet intel, and he is responsible for blowing Prideaux’s op.
It is a testament to John Le Carré’s skill as a writer that Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a page-turner despite the fact that it contains so little action. Instead, the plot moves forward and the truth is revealed by means of conversations, flashbacks, and Smiley’s seemingly inexhaustible memory. Smiley walks us through the wilderness one mirror at a time until we see reality.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is the fifth of seven novels in which George Smiley plays a part and the first of Le Carré’s famed “Karla Trilogy,” in which Smiley matches wits with “Karla,” head of “Moscow Center” (the KGB). It is followed by The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People. Of the five novels I have read so far, this and The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (in which Smiley plays a small role) are the best.
Interestingly, Le Carré is releasing what is billed as a new George Smiley novel in September. It’s called A Legacy of Spies, and I look forward to reading it after I finish this series.
John Le Carré, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: A George Smiley Novel (New York: Penguin, 2011; orig. 1974).
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