The Freezing Fog of the Cold War : George Smiley 1
Despite being fascinated by espionage – the hidden stuff of it, and the psychology of those who do it, rather than the glitzy Bond aspects – I have somehow never read le Carré, nor seen or heard the TV or radio adaptations of his books.
This, then his first book, is my first outing too with George Smiley, loner, a quiet man, with a private life full of some sorrow, as his rather glamorous, society wife, an unlikely match, has done the more expected thing and run off with a glamour playboy.
Set in the late 50’s/early 60’s, as the Cold War was getting close to freeze point, this is as much a murder mystery as a spy thriller. Smiley recently interrogated a Foreign Office official who had come under the radar of possibly passing information to East Germany. He had been pretty certain that the man, Fennan, was in the clear, and had given him understanding that this would be his conclusion. The interview, an informal one, ended amicably on both sides. Except that Fennan then killed himself, and, even more curiously, posted a letter to Smiley on the same evening requesting a meeting.
I found this an interesting and atmospheric read, melancholy, cerebral and with nice and understated humour and a good evocation of time and place, as the following section shows. Smiley has gone to the dead man’s Surrey home, there to try and make sense of events, which do not quite seem to add up :
Merridale Lane is one of those corners of Surrey where the inhabitants wage a remorseless battle against the stigma of suburbia. Trees, fertilized and cajoled into being in every front garden half obscure the poky ‘Character dwellings’ which crouch behind them. The rusticity of the environment is enhanced by the wooden owls that keep guard over the names of houses, and by crumbling dwarves indefatigably posed over goldfish ponds. The inhabitants of Merridale Lane do not paint their dwarves, suspecting this to be a suburban vice
There are some interesting relationships which are clearly quite strong ones, but hidden behind an understated English reserve. Aiding Smiley in his investigations are a couple of professional colleagues, Mendel and Guillam, both of whom go the distance in what is after all, a dangerous pursuit – the hunting down of those who are prepared to kill in the service of a theory and philosophy. There is a subtext of masculine friendships, strong, clearly, but the emotional connections are not spoken about: this is stiff upper lip land, in time and in place. ‘Feeling’ language belongs to Fennan’s widow, Elsa, a German refugee, survivor of the war :
it’s an old illness you suffer from, Mr Smiley………..and I have seen many victims of it. The mind becomes separated from the body; it thinks without reality, rules a paper kingdom and devises without emotion the ruin of its paper victims. But sometimes the division between your world and ours is incomplete; the files grow heads and arms and legs, and that’s a terrible moment, isn’t it. The names have families as well as records, and human motives to explain the sad little dossiers and their make-believe sins….The State is a dream too, a symbol of nothing at all, an emptiness, a mind without a body, a game played with clouds in the sky
There are obviously a lot of wheels within wheels plots to be unravelled, and the reader is in that rather enjoyable place where almost everyone might come under some kind of suspicion. Histories – both personal and the history of conflicts between states and ideologies are under investigation.
This was filmed as ‘The Deadly Affair, directed by Sidney Lumet, and starring James Mason, Simone Signoret and Maximilian Schell, it presumably takes some liberties, not least of which is the renaming of George Smiley as Dobbs