Thursday, November 17, 2011

Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy

James Bond is the man who comes to mind when you think about British spies. He's handsome and cocky. He's swaggering and dangerous and his prowess with the ladies is much-vaunted. I'd like to introduce you to another British agent... Granted he's short, chubby, and middle-aged, bespectacled and prone to muttering to himself. He's the kind of man who remembers his umbrella on clear days and leaves it at home on days when it's bound to pour. He's married to a young beauty--but she's as faithless as his umbrella, and he doesn't have the guts to leave her. This is George Smiley and the fate of British intelligence lies in his pudgy hands. 

...Because it's the height of the Cold War and there is a Soviet mole inside the British intelligence agency. Smiley is pulled from recent retirement to investigate and with a small but trusted team, he follows paper trails and conducts interviews to determine the identity of the double agent.

I had a rough time adjusting to this book. Namely this was due to generational, cultural, and vocational reasons. And by that I mean that I am not an old English dude who majored in espionage. So when I couldn't understand something that I read, I asked myself, Is this one of those cute British terms like "knickers" for undies or "lift" for elevator? Or: Is this something I missed because I was born in 1983 and not 1923? Or did this go over my head because I am NOT a spy? (Although at the age of 10 I was fairly convinced that this was my life calling. See my self-published "spy newspaper" for further details. I'm sure my sister would be happy to supply this for you...) So I muddled through, trying to make sense of the puzzle on the page.

Tinker, Tailor doesn't contain the high-speed chases, torture scenes, explosions and physicality that we've come to expect from the spy genre. Tinker is more of a slow burn... how incendiary can following a paper trail really be? Yes, at one point Smiley draws a gun, but he's also standing in a pantry, barefoot, groping blindly, because age has diminished his night-vision.

And that's the true treasure of this book: we love George Smiley. Yes, he's pathetic and bumbling. But he's brave, he's a patriot, and he steps up to duty when his country needs him... and he's awesome at spy-stuff! And the best thing: we never forget that he's human. Even in the midst of the final showdown--the mole is about to be revealed!--he is mourning his wife and her infidelities. This guy has thoughts and feelings. Something we've never suspected of 007.

John le Carre (the nom de plume of David Cornwell) was an actual spy for MI5/6 during the Cold War and his cover was blown by a real Soviet mole! That was the end of his career in espionage and the beginning of his writing career. He is also credited as popularizing the term 'mole' to mean a double-agent. And apparently the spy jargon he created for his novels has been adopted by real spies. Imagine that.

A movie version is being released in December starring Tom Hardy, Colin Firth, and Gary Oldman as a rather thinner, less bumbling George Smiley.

Grade: 3/5 Great writing. Enjoyable, but that's enough le Carre for this girl unless they make an espionage glossary.


toni d. said...

Oh cool, I was actually considering reading this book but had misgivings about it. Thanks for the heads up about the spy jargon. I think I'll just wait for the movie. Nothing puts me off more than jargon with no accompanying explanations!

SaraO said...

I'll look into finding a Spy-Term dictionary if Bethie could possibly send a copy of the Spy-newspaper. Thanks.

I feel like this is one of those books that sounds good in theory...and is just a little outside of my enjoyment zone. Though the promise of a movie with Colin Firth could change my mind. I love Colin Firth...Mr. Darcy!! lol

rachelkiwi said...

i agree, the movie looks way better. DONT try to contact B and get your mitts on a copy. i would die of mortification! haha.

thelibrarianreads said...

So FB-ing B better get to her before I do!!! [insert evil laugh here]

Shannon (Giraffe Days) said...

I think that is THE BEST opening paragraph I have ever read in a review. So well written, Rachel! Funny too. :) And then, after reading it, I thought, I can't believe I struggled to summarise it so much when you've shown how easy it is!

Definitely generational and vocational reasons for finding this one tricky, for me anyway - the cultural not so much since we get so much British telly etc. in Australia. It's funny that you mention wanting to be a spy at the age of 10 - I wanted to be one at I think it was 12, maybe a bit older. Except I suck at languages and I don't think quickly enough to improvise my way out of tricky situations!

Totally agree with you about Smiley. In fact, this is the review I wish I could have written, to be honest.