What I’m Reading: John Le Carré – The Honourable Schoolboy

Apparently, many people read John Le Carré’s spy novels for a glimpse at what the world of international espionage is really like; in other words, they read them like a kind of journalism about the shady world of Intelligence Services. And there certainly is something to it – we’ve grown used to a more realistic perspective on secret services, but we can still imagine what it must have been like to read a novel like The Spy Who Came In from the Cold for someone whose idea of spy thrillers were Ian Fleming’s James Bond novels. Le Carré profoundly debunked the myths about the spy trade, showing it to be a world not of elegant womanizers lounging in luxurious surroundings, but of middle-aged men holding bureaucratic meetings in dull offices, not of noble deeds and lofty aims but of petty infighting and political maneuvering. The novels of Le Carré were filled with detailed descriptions and precise observations, and had authenticity written all over them and thoroughly destroyed any conception of glamour clinging to the spy profession – today, nobody would consider a James Bond novel anything but fantasy.

The Honourable Schoolboy lends itself with particular ease to such a journalistic reading due to the place and time it is set in: a very large part of the novel takes place in Hong Kong and South-East Asia during the retreat of the United States from Vietnam and a lot of room is given to highly atmospheric descriptions of the situation, of the feelings of uncertainty, unrest and frustration pervading the area during that period – making this by far the longest book of Le Carré’s so far. Even though Le Carré’s account is fictional, he appears to have done an impressive amount of research for it, and I doubt any journalistic, presumably non-fictional report could do a better job at painting a picture that is both authentic and immersive.

Therefore, one might consider The Honourable Schoolboy worth reading on those merits alone. But Le Carré’s ambition for this and his other novels does not extend to merely being reportage, this novel, like his previous ones, aims for something more, and I think that it is this which makes them stand out. And this is not just true for the novels’ content but for their form, too – quite often, the apparently realistic exterior of Le Carré’s spy novels conceals inner mechanisms that do not run by the same rules governing realistic narratives but are structurally quite experimental. The Honourable Schoolboy is another example of this – its main thematic concern is with truth and its uses, and the novel’s forms reflects this, even if it is by adding its own distortions in the process.

Towards the end of the novel, one of the characters quotes from a poem by John Donne:

On a huge hill,
Cragged and steep, Truth stands, and he that will
Reach her, about must and about must go,
And what the hill’s suddenness resists, win so.

This, even if it comes late in the novel, after its plot and its protagonists have taken many turns about and about, constitutes something like the motto for The Honourable Schoolboy. Indeed the whole novel could be taken as a variation on the poem those lines comes from, Donne’s Satire III, to the point where it feels that one might place both works next to each other and draw in the correspondences. Correspondence is part of the novel’s theme, too, as it is set not just in Asia but has London as a major setting too, and the events in both spheres, while never shown to result from each other immediately, do influence each other in oblique ways  that had me think more than once of the Renaissance alchemy concept of correspondence, where things not directly connected still work upon each other by way of mystic similarities. Except, of course, that there is nothing mystical at place here, but the driving forces are mostly political in nature – but not really any less obscure for that.

There is a recurring image in the novel of truth as a small circle or kernel, surrounded by layers upon layers of untruth that grow steadily larger, up to the outer ring which is a vast area of rumour and obfuscation. The novel in fact starts with out rumours, and continues to refer to them, in the plot and by way of its anonymous narrator who tries to pierce through the mist of lies and half-truths surrounding “Operation Dolphin” to arrive at its kernel of truth. And both Jerry Westerby and George Smiley, the novel’s main protagonists, are surrounded by rumours, putting the reader in a very similar position of having to cross through obfuscation to arrive at the truth. A truth that becomes ever more elusive the further the novel proceeds, and it eventually becomes clear that for all its descriptive vividness and journalistic authenticity, the novel lets us see its kernel of truth only through a thick haze of distraction and misinformation. In fact, its undoubtedly brilliant journalistic element might constitute precisely that haze – one can  hardly consider it accidental that so much of the novel takes place among journalist and that one of its main protagonists is a journalist who has no scruples to manipulate the truth when it serves his purposes and who in turn is manipulated by his employers in London. By the end of The Honourable Schoolboy it is by no means that there every was any kernel of truth at all, and if there was, it might be impossible to find – but not for epistemological reasons but because it has been so distorted and hidden under layers and layers of obfuscation by political power plays that it is simply gone, and the wanderer, when he takes that last turn that last turn that will take him up to the summit of that hill, finds himself on top of a sheer cliff, stepping off into the air.

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