I never would have guessed that a book about an old, chubby spy would be so engrossing, but the fact that I’ve been completely submerged in the world of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy for the past two days proves otherwise. I avoided reading this famous John le Carré novel out of a stubborn hatred for the ‘thriller’ genre, so it’s incredibly humbling to admit that this novel has completely destroyed my preconceptions of what a spy story could mean.
The novel starts in what must be one of the most off-putting opening scenes that I’ve ever read. I’d been led to believe this book was about a British spy, but the first chapter is told from the perspective of a chubby British schoolboy. Spy books generally start off with some kind of isolated incident; a crazy action scene to get the plot going and the reader curious about the mystery that awaits her. Conversely, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy begins in the most banal way possible. It’s an opening that fits with the themes of the book, but it does absolutely nothing to pull the reader in. That disconnect between the story and the reader only increases as the actual plot gets going.
The first 50 pages of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are unquestionably one of the most challenging pieces of writing that I have ever read. Not only does le Carré make no effort to force the reader’s engagement with the story, it seems like he is actively working against you. Characters are introduced and disappear, unfamiliar names and places are mentioned and never explained, and everyone speaks in half-sentences and impenetrable code. It feels like you’ve been thrown in a story that has already halfway begun, which is technically true, since Tinker Tailor is not the first novel to star George Smiley. But le Carré has absolutely no concern for new readers. You’re completely on your own in figuring out what everyone is talking about, which helps heighten the underlining current of tension and haziness that this book posses. Even when you’re able to form a general outline on what’s happening and start to nail down characters, everything still feels slightly out of focus. I learned quickly that trying to get a firm grasp on this story is like trying to grab at air, so I abandoned myself completely to the narrative and trusted it to take me where it wanted to go.
The novel methodically makes its way through the networks of the British intelligence system, breaking everything down to its discrete parts and then resembling them into a mass of bureaucratic entanglements. Where the James Bond stories focus on the spy as an autonomous unit, Tinker Tailor is more interested in showing how individual actors influence the group and vice versa. It’s a study of interconnectedness and the main tension of the novel revolves around how Smiley will ever be able to untangle the whole mess.
I keep coming back to the word ‘methodical,’ but it’s such an apt description of this story. Smiley and his allies gather their information either by cross-referencing reams of intelligence reports or by interviewing various British government personnel. There is no bombast to the work Smiley does. By the end of the novel, we’ve barely had the opportunity to leave London. The present-day action exclusively occurs in England and the majority of the foreign intrigue scenes – the bread and butter of most spy stories – occur in flashback. Even the climax is utterly ordinary: after days of painstakingly piecing together information, George Smiley confirms the identity of a suspected British mole by hiding in a darkened parlor room and eavesdropping on a conversation between two men. We’re never told exactly what the words of this conversation are; we’re just treated to the fallout. But what we are told is that Smiley acts out his triumph while not wearing any shoes, just socks. It’s such a perfect example of this book’s fascination with the mundane and the image of such an intelligent spy, standing in a room with only socks on, is incredible.
I enjoyed this story for what it gave me and for what it purposefully withheld from me. I will always appreciate a writer who is confident in their abilities — and by extension, the abilities of their readers — to make the story work without needing to be explicit with details. It’ll be interesting to watch the 2011 movie – which I’ve heard nothing but praise for – to see how well the ambiguity of the story translates from the book to film.