Smiley's People, by John le Carré, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1980, 374 pp., $10.95.
One of Smiley's people is dead. He was murdered in London, on the Hampstead Heath, but in classic 20th-century Russian style. So, because the victim had been one of Smiley's agents and had been asking to contact him, George Smiley is summoned back from disgrace and forced retirement to take a quick look into the murder and show that the interests of the British Secret Service were not involved.
But it turns out that the interests of British intelligence are involved. That gives George Smiley another chance to grapple with Karla, his enemy from many prior books. And grapple Smiley does.
It's all here in this book. Precise and breath-taking logical inference, seamy murder scenes, a plastic brothel, violence, meticulous tradecraft, the horrid ugliness of death, and the probings of human weaknesses and strengths that we've come to expect from le Carré. And through it all the stolid, anhedonic George Smiley demonstrates the extraordinary brilliance and discipline that makes him successful in ways his personal inadequacies make it impossible for him to accept.
George Smiley is fascinating in this book as he is in the other books le Carré has written around him. His personal life is a shambles. His personal appearance is awful. His self-esteem is nonexistent except in the borrowed identity of an effective civil servant. But his presence dominates.
He draws our attention with his brilliant perceptiveness and disciplined reasoning. When he thinks a situation through, we the readers look excitedly because we know that we are witnessing thinking as it can and should be. We know, from a catalogue of the details Smiley attends to, that the way Smiley is doing things is exactly the way they should be done. Yet we are held in a sharp tension throughout the tale of operations because we know, from those same details, the many ways in which things could all go wrong. So le Carré sustains us in an excited apprehension along with an enjoyable awareness of Smiley's competence.
But also, there's the inexplicable in Smiley. Why, at the end of The Honorable Schoolboy, did he freeze in the face of betrayal and perceived evil? What indecision keeps this extraordinary man from either clearly accepting or clearly rejecting his marital situation? Why does this person who excels at what he has chosen for his life's work deny himself a self-awareness of his excellence and the pleasure that should attend that awareness?
Ian Fleming, the former intelligence agent and author of the James Bond stories, said that John le Carré had ruined it for him and other writers of espionage stories by telling people what espionage work is really like. It's not like the adventurous, highly visible, high-living work that was James Bond's lot. What it's like is the work that other civil servants do. Sometimes it's exciting; sometimes it's completely awful, as in The Looking Glass War or The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Almost always it's done in an oppressive atmosphere of alternating pressure, boredom, and moral greyness. But sometimes, as with a George Smiley, it can be difficult work, well done, by an admirable person. And thus, despite the fact that Smiley can't let himself see it, his actions form a picture of reasoned and realistic human achievement that stands out in relief from a heavy background of cynicism and greyness…a picture of something exemplary in the human condition.
J. Roger Lee teaches philosophy at California State College at Los Angeles.
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "The Spy Who…".