“Smiley’s People” by John le Carré

Developing to some kind of resolution the story of Smiley and Karla, subtly making clearer the binary connections between them. P450 tries to make this explicit: Karla’s being brought down by Smiley’s defining compassion; Smiley’s being somehow damaged by his use of Karla’s defining fanaticism… They somehow swap traits, in a Harry-Voldemort wand-battle. But Smiley doesn’t, as far as I can tell, use fanatical methods, so the switch doesn’t ring true…
Smiley is more Aeneas, drawn into triumph and unhappiness by an unarticulated and problematic sense of duty (pietas); Karla his Turnus, moving within the story from primitively brutal, a representative of forces primitively brutal, to a victimhood engineered by the directly personal.
Le Carré’s basic technique is here, as elsewhere, and more than other writers, to tell his story in backward segments: we and his protagonists first encounter puzzles (“who’s this?” “what’s going on now?”, and then find explanation; it’s like starting a novel many times over. This sometimes operates works at a micro-level, for example on p167, where (in an uncharacteristically self-conscious passage) he teases the reader by a lengthy description of Smiley’s struggle to get a fire going as a “heavy symbol”, before eventually reminding us of what this might be a symbol. This self-consciousness intrudes with much greater success, however, in the book’s final stages, where use of the present tense makes narrator and reader partners in a Circus debrief, le Carré’s story now a case study in the training of spies and Circus mythology. By this simple device he raises the tone of the dénouement to another plane.

New words: soutane; spavined; St Luke’s Summer.

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