Updated: Oct 15, 2022
I became aware of the shadowy presence of George Smiley in the Regal Theatre in Connaught Place in the late seventies in one of my periodic escapades from the drudgery of the provincial town that was Aligarh. The movie was The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and Richard Burton played the role of secret agent Alec Leamas who, on the verge of his retirement, undertakes to pass himself as a defector to get into East Germany, where he is expected to incriminate a German agent named Mundt. In Germany he finds himself in a complex trap set by George Smiley, off-screen mastermind of this devilish brew of double cross. The movie was based on a book by John Le Carre.
Absent from the movie was the romance that one associated with spying and spies like the familiar James Bond. The film was a stark depiction of reality, almost a documentary. To understand the plot, you must follow convoluted explanations, cryptic references and dropped names. The film shows the extent of deceit, cynicism, and corruption in the spy game.
The first Smiley book I read was Smiley’s People describing events late in Smiley’s career. It is the final instalment of the epic fight between Smiley and the Russian mastermind Karla. The book opens with the murder of Vladimir, one of “Smiley’s People” and Smiley is forced to return from retirement to investigate the killing. The trail leads him to Karla in Moscow Center who by the end of the book was blackmailed to defect to the west. At his moment of triumph, watching Karla cross the bridge in East German border to surrender, Smiley reflects on the price he paid for with lives and careers in the service of British Intelligence. It is a story of revenge, of the methodical way Smiley takes down his adversary. The book portrays the moral cost of waging the Cold War in its most visceral manner. Le Carré’s plots evolve in the manner of a Greek tragedy, events moving inexorably towards the final denouement. Betrayal was the sublime theme, to which he returned again and again.
Smitten by the book, I started a serious reading of all Smiley novels starting with Call for the Dead, introducing Smiley and the “Circus,” le Carré’s name for the British Intelligence apparatus, located in London’s Cambridge Circus. A suspected East German spy under Smiley’s investigation dies and there is pressure to sweep the death under the rug as a suicide. The book ends with Smiley solving the puzzle and a deadly confrontation at the Battersea Bridge in London. The very first chapter of his very first book is titled “A Brief History of George Smiley”, making one of the most memorable characters in modern fiction emerge fully formed. Smiley finds retreat in German literature even as he was battling deception, betrayal, and murder. The slim book was published in 1961 when the author was just starting his work as a spy for MI6 in Bonn.
In A Murder of Quality, published in 1962, Smiley is asked by an old friend to solve a mysterious death at an English boarding school. This book, more a murder mystery than an espionage novel, breathes the central recurring theme of the Smiley novels, the corrosive rot at the heart of British institutions.
The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (The Spy) opens in West Berlin at the gates of Checkpoint Charlie East and ends in East Berlin at the base of the Wall. In between is a dazzling run of deception and betrayal. Smiley is in the background in the book, manipulating Alec Leamas as he dares Hans Dieter-Mundt. Critics say that this novel “changed spy novels forever” by depicting spies not as romantic figures but as vulnerable people and made le Carré a writer to watch.
The Looking Glass War was a satire on spy stories and was apparently not received well because readers were put off by its depiction of a disastrous intelligence failure. le Carré observed that the reason for rejection was the public perception that “the spies can do no wrong.” Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy re-invents George Smiley as the Circus gets compromised by the presence of a Russian “mole” (a word coined by Le Carre). Smiley is brought back from retirement to find the mole. This novel exquisitely details the way Smiley backtracks into old intelligence files to follow the clues and find the lies that help him solve seemingly insoluble puzzles.
The Honourable School Boy opens with George becoming “Control”-head of Circus-after his success in TTSS. The story is set in exotic Southeast Asian locations during the chaos of the American withdrawal from Vietnam. Smiley’s probing gaze turns there for a chance to expose Karla by exposing his secret funds. Sharing the spotlight is Jerry Westerby, called back from retirement. In The Secret Pilgrim, Smiley surfaces after a gap, though in an oblique manner. The novel’s narrator, Ned York uses Smiley’s recollections as a starter. Le Carré uses this episodic format to fill in gaps in the Circus narrative. It resembles The Looking Glass War and is rife with satire.
After nearly 20 years, Le Carré surprised us with A Legacy of Spies, the last of the Smiley books. The old Circus headquarters are replaced by British Intelligence’s shiny new headquarters in London. The narrator is Smiley’s sidekick Peter Guillam, summoned from retirement in France for an enquiry into the operation that led to the death of Alec Leamas in ‘The Spy’. Guillam spars with devious operatives posing as his allies. Betrayal is again at the heart of story. A Legacy of Spies tells us that our most dangerous enemies are often our own friends, blinded by ends that they believe justify any means. Smiley’s presence hovers over the story. To avoid being scapegoated, Guillam must use George’s methods and retrace the steps that led to the deaths in the Leamas operation. At the end, Guillam tracks Smiley to Freiberg in Germany, for one final interrogation. Guillam wants his old master to explain “Why did we do the things we did.” Smiley’s response encompasses the entire series of novels.
George Smiley is an antithesis of the other British spy, James Bond. Quiet, self-deprecating, mild-mannered, and middle-aged, he lives by his wits. He excels in the art of bureaucratic maneuvering rather than gunplay. Also, he is not a bed-hopper; in fact, it is Smiley’s wife Ann who is notorious for her affairs. In “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”, Le Carre describes Smiley as a “brilliant spy and inadequate man”.
Smiley is an exceptionally skilled spymaster, gifted with a prodigious memory and a deep insight into human frailties. Highly sagacious and incredibly perceptive with a strong moral conscience; he also understands the grisly aspects of his calling. Despite his recurring retirements, Smiley maintains an extensive range of aides and support staff. His fidelity to them extracts genuine respect and loyalty. He is described as a somewhat short and fat man, dressed in expensive but badly fitting clothes.
Le Carré’s storytelling benefits from his knowledge of tradecraft drawn from his experience in British intelligence. John le Carré was the cover name chosen by David Cornwell for writing fiction. He continued to do his casework before each book, visiting locations and interviewing contacts in the covert world. All these make Smiley the most “credible” spy we encounter in fiction. A legion of fans agrees. They know that he cleans his thick-lensed eyeglasses with his tie, that he lives at 9 Bywater Street, Chelsea, that he wears ill-fitting suits and forever pines for the love of Lady Ann.
In 2021, George Smiley will have completed sixty years in fiction. I decided to spend the COVID lockdown period in revisiting the venerable British spook. Reading the nine Smiley novels was too much of an effort and I cheated by watching the BBC serial of Smily’s People available on YouTube with screenplay by le Carre. I came away with a deepened respect for the remarkable talents of John le Carré; made especially poignant by his recent passing at the age of 89.