JOHN LE CARRE has created a vision of the intelligence bureaucracy as a sort of Middle-Earth sunken in clandestinity yet reflecting with precision, with the miniature sharpness of the wrong side of a binocular eyepiece, the larger society whose purposes it serves or betrays.
The espionage hobbits of Le Carre's world - the field men, the scalphunters, the housekeepers and the lamplighters act out their dramas along with Allen Dulles once characterized as "the back alleys" of the world in the era of the Cold War. It is no accident that the spiritual center of Le Carre's fiction has so often been Germany, the skirmish line between the two Europes.
In the art form of the esplonage novel Le Carre has carved out a singular niche for himself. Graham Greene in his more serious works, most notably The Quiet American , invests his characters with political sensibility as part of his dramatic texture. Ian Fleming titillates proficiently with his centerfold canvas of sex-and-violence fantasies. Le Carre eschews the large issues of political combat between the competing systems.
His eye closely scans the trenches and foxholes in which the secret agents maneuver against each other. There are no moralists in these foxholes (such as Alden Pyle, the quiet American but only technicians who are motivated, at best, by conventional patriotism and institutional loyalty. He portrays the world of the intelligence community in tones of scruffy grey. The Circus, the headquarters of the secret service, is pictured as a place of run-down gentility, a tatty governmental boarding house. Smiley's subordinates all have their various ties and kinks: Connie Sachs, the Kremlin-watcher with uncanny recall, is an arthritic alcoholic, Fawn, the "baby sitter" (Smiley's bodyguard), is given to spasms of arm-splitting violence; Jerry Westerby, the honorable schoolboy, proves too susceptible to love.
Smiley himself, the myopic, tubby and often-cuckolded acting chief of the intelligence service, is the very antithesis of James Bond. He is the bureaucrat as hero, his personal life a shambles, his professional triumphs forged out of files and dossiers to which he repairs for sleepless days and nights of concentration. Smiley is a product of the British career service, an English bull of tenacity and loyalty to agency and patria upon whom, one hopes, Le Carre will some day confer at least a CBE.
As a novel The Honorable Schoolboy is like a well-prepared battlefield. The main column of plot is Smiley's effort to revive and decontaminate the shattered British intelligence service at Cambridge Circus, rooting out compromised espionage networks, giving the boot to those with the faintest taint of double agentry. The debacle occurred in the prior installment of the Smiley saga, tinker, Tailor, Solder, Spy , when Le Carre called Smiley back from enforced retirement to search out the Mole, the Soviet deep penetration agent, Bill Haydon, who not only devastated the Circus but seduced Smiley's beautiful, errant wife, Ann.
The locale of The Honourable Schoolboy is Southeast Asia, a theatre of operations new to Le Carre, one through which he traveled for the first time in the final months of the last Indochina War during 1975. He treats the hot war in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos just as he did the Cold War in Europe, as thebackdrop for the connivances of the British Circus, the American "Cousins" (CIA), and the Moscow Centre, of which Smiley's Soviet arch-nemesis, Karla, is the presiding intelligence.
Aside from the bitter ruminations of an American major whom Jerry Westerby encounters in a U.S. forward intelligence base in northeast Thailand, there is little explicit talk of the political apocalypse thundering around the events of this book. Saigon has just "fallen," the major announces to Westerby, who has stumbled in from a hair-raising intelligence mission under British journalist cover. The major extends his hand and says with cordial venom:
"I want you to extend to me the hand of welcome, sir. The United States of America has just applied to join the club of second class powers, of which I understand your own fine nation to be chairman, president and oldest member. Shake It."
" 'Proud to have you aboard,' said Jerry and obligingly shook the major's hand."
The marvel of Le Carre, and it may take the patience of an aficionado, is the way he launches his plot columns into motion from a slow, almost opaque opening scene in the Hong Kong press club, shifting then to Jerry Westerby hacking out a novel in a rag tag Tuscan hamlet, then to the Cambridge Circus where Smiley is embarking on his stable-cleaning enterprise. At once the columns begin assembling themselves in grand formation and the reader emerges from the dense under-brush of seemingly random episode with a sudden bird's-eye sense of the overall design.
Le Carre is unhurried almost to the point of self-indulgence, in reaching this point of elevation in the story. His eye and ear store up morsels of dialogue, mannerism and appearance with an exuberant gluttony which some may find overwhelming. At times he seems to struggle with himself to keep a minor character from breaking ranks and charging the footlights. But to me this is part of the charm and vitality of Le Carre.
The flaw that I find in this latest work is the relationship between the two Swatowese brothers, Drake and Nelson Ko, the former a self-made mogul in the Chinese entrepreneruial jungle of Hong Kong and the latter an enigmatic figure of influence in the Peking governmen. China is a new terrain for Le Carre and his attempt to yoke the story of two brothers into the structure of the book tends at times to split the seams of credibility and relevance so artfully sewn throughout.
Jerry Westerby, the journalist-spy, and adventuring aristovrat, is almost too attractive a character for Le Carre's world. In the end he rebels against Smiley and the Circus, propelled by his attraction to the beautiful and also pathetic sexual punch board. Lizzie Worthington.
He tries at one point to explain his defection to Smiley, that he has fallen in love with quarry.
"And with the clarity which pain sometimes brings," writes Le Carre, "he felt somehow that by his action he had put Smiley's own existence under threat.
"Don't worry," he said gently. "Won't happen to you, that's for sure."
The moment passes. But in that moment the honorable schoolboy and his mentor, the imperturbable master spy, deny each other. Jerry Westerby broke the rules of the institution where Smiley was both chief warden and prisoner.