What I’m Reading: John Le Carré – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy

Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was my next stop in my (mostly) chronological tour of the works of John Le Carré; and it is interesting to note that he followed what very many consider his worst novel with what most consider one of his best (although that distinction usually goes not so much to this novel in and of itself as to the “Karla Trilogy” of which it is the first volume).

This novel is structured like a jigsaw puzzle. While it is a well-worn simile to compare a mystery novel to a puzzle, it rarely was so literally true as in the case of Le Carré’s novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy  – the narrative here does not so much develop as a linear plot, but rather consists of bits and pieces of similar size but various shapes that at first sight seem to have no connection to each other and not to make much sense on their own, but when placed together in the right pattern by an expert hand suddenly cohere and form a bigger picture. That expert hand (and it is very expert hand) is not that of the reader, however – Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy does not just shake out the unsorted pieces in front of the reader and leaves it for them to sort them out (which would have resulted in a formally much more radical novel – one like George Perec’s La Vie – Mode d’Emploi, for example) but has them all put in place by the narrator – reading Le Carré’s novel, then, is not so much like piecing together a jigsaw puzzle, but like watching someone else do it.

Which does sound rather boring, and probably would have been in the hands of a lesser writer than Le Carré, but he pulls it off masterfully. There is not really any forward momentum to this novel, there is nothing really happening except people sitting around, drinking tea, or taking the occasional walk, while reminiscing or having talks over the current state of the Secret Service, but it still manages to grab the reader and to not let go until the end. The story is told in isolated pieces that at first do not seem to connect at all – another fitting image beside a jigsaw puzzle might be those complicated patterns from domino stones that are set up in a long and painstaking process, to be then set in motion by the tipping over of a single stone. Maybe this simile explains better while in spite of everything Tinker Tailor Sailor Spy is a compulsive page-turner, even if one has (like me) watched the BBC TV serial  a long time back and still remembers who the mole is. The real tension and excitement in this novel comes not so much from the Whodunnit-like mystery, but from watching Le Carré build his extremely complex and incredibly fragile-seeming structure, from holding one’s breath for fear of disturbing it and half expecting it to come tumbling down any paragraph. It’s not unlike watching a juggler, watching his hands, watching oranges circle through the air, involuntarily sucking in one’s breath when one seems to slip his grasp, then exhaling with a relieved sigh when it doesn’t and he catches it at the last possible moment.

As impressive as Le Carré’s techinal accomplishment here is, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is not artistry for its own sake – as always with Le Carré’s novels, this one, too, is driven by a strong moral and political impetus. The world that Le Carré describes here, the world of Circus and Centre, of espionage and counter-intelligence, of scalphunters,  lamplighters and moles, might border on the one we inhabit, but it also is detached from it, and the two exist parallel to each other without really touching. But while the shady world of international espionage might at first appear like some exotic fantasy world, the farther the novel progresses, the more pieces Le Carré adds to the jigsaw puzzle, the clearer it becomes that the resulting picture bears an uncanny resemblance to our own world – here is class structure, and here is the exclusion of outsiders, here is the ruthlessness of the poeple in power and the powerlessness of the people at the bottom of the pecking order, here is the pretense to be in the moral right while employing decidedly unethical means to reach one’s ends. In the end, it adds up to an only slightly distorted replica of our familiar world of economy and politics, and when the final piece is in place, the reader is left looking at a picture that is all too familiar.



  1. The series is 70s BBC, so very slow moving, but if you have the patience, it is very compellng. And Alec Guiness just nails George Smiley perfectly – once you have seen him in that role, it really is pretty much impossible to read the novel without imagining him as the character. 😛 His performance alone is worth watching the series.

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