Penguin, 2012 movie tie-in reprint of 1974 original, 381 pages, C$15.90 hc, ISBN 978-0143120933
I’m hardly the first one to note the fact, but as I age, I understand that some books are best read by older readers. Tastes change, our knowledge of the world evolves and we come to appreciate atypical takes on standard material.
I first read John le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy in my early twenties, and it may be better to say that I tried to read it. I was on a thriller binge at the time, and had to sample le Carré’s fiction. Alas, I still vividly remember being so disappointed by the conclusion of A Small Town in Germany, and not quite knowing what to make of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’s dull and dense accumulation of details in non-linear chronology.
Flash forward twenty years, and some things have changed in the meantime. By 2004, I was able to give a lukewarm review to The Russia House. By 2007, I was positively enthusiastic about The Constant Gardener, helped along by great memories of the film adaptation. When I watched the 2011 big-screen version of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, I knew I had to give another chance to the novel. (I have no shame in leveraging movie adaptation in order to improve my reading experiences. With time, by brain has learned how to use visuals in order to make the reading experience even more enjoyable.)
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy certainly feels a lot more interesting than it did two decades ago. I’m no longer necessarily opposed to le Carré’s meandering style, or his dedication to presenting a view of the intelligence establishment that favors analysis and reflection over over-the-top action heroics. My own years within a bureaucracy make it easier to appreciate the inner working of the British intelligence service as described in the novel, and the emphasis on adult themes seem to resonate more strongly now than they did before. At last, I’m at a point in my life where reading about a humble public servant uncovering a Soviet spy through conversations and deductions fits my definition of a cozy thriller.
The story is archetypical spy stuff: There’s a Soviet agent working within the British Intelligence Service, and it’s up to disgraced/retired intelligence analyst George Smiley to uncover him. A predecessor has narrowed down the possibilities to four people, all of whom have suspiciously ascended to the top of the national spy establishment. But it’s up to Smiley to work outside the system and assemble the pieces of the puzzle: gently interrogating witnesses, poring over documents, reminiscing about the past with past colleagues and thinking really hard about what he has learned are the tools of his trade. le Carré makes it clear that Smiley is a gifted interrogator, able to tease secrets out of his interlocutor without them even realizing it. When comes the time to take action, Smiley’s methods are as subtle as they are efficient, leading to a terribly British climax in which he sits in a chair and waits for the arrival of the unknown traitor.
Stylistically, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a dense accumulation of details about its characters, chronology-hopping subplots, personal issues and trade jargon. Le Carré’s literary style is low-key to the point of downplaying even important events, something that may unsettle readers with higher expectations of action. (Again; see the movie first, and only read the book if you liked the film.) Every conversation is described in subtle nuances, the narration barely tipping its hand when something important has happened. Readers sometimes have access to Smiley’s inner monologues, but usually not: the voice of the novel floats around the plot without getting involved at all times.
The result can feel detached, cold, lengthy or meandering; all valid charges against this kind of procedural, reality-based spying suspense novel. On the other hand, it succeeds at what it tries to do. The result is interesting in its own right, and the fact that the novel was published in 1974 now tends to give it a nice patina of historical charm: it has aged well by remaining a reflection of its time. Ultimately, what works best about Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is the change of pace is presents from much of the spy fiction genre: it’s still, nearly forty years later, a fairly unusual novel in this regard, and readers who have seen everything in the thriller genre may come to this novel (or, indeed, much of le Carré’s fiction) seeking something different. While the novel won’t please all readers, it remains a quasi-definitive Cold War thriller, plunging us even today in a different time and place. Is it any coincidence if it took me until my late thirties to appreciate that intention?