Sunday, July 15, 2018

There Are Twelve of Them and Asshole Lyin'

In the realm of international relations and domestic politics, things are, to use a technical term, fucked up... twelve Russians have been charged with meddling in the 2016 election cycle and the president of the US might be a Russian asshole... errr... asset. Put succinctly, shit's weird.

Seeking a bit of escapism, I decided to read a novel, John Le Carré 's 1974 thriller/procedural Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The novel chronicles an investigation into Russian infiltration of an intelligence agency conducted by an agent, George Smiley, who was drummed out of the service in the upheaval after the death of the elderly, ailing agency head. Brought out of retirement after a bombshell revelation of betrayal by a field agent who romanced a disenchanted Soviet agent, who divulged the presence of the undermining 'mole'. Smiley was conceived as an anti-James Bond... he is on the far end of middle-age, portly, erudite, unobtrusive enough to be able to melt into a crowd, and married to a brilliant, aristocratic wife who conducts multiple affairs (in the parlance of the Cartoon Frog Ironic Nazi Brigade, he is a 'cuck'). Possessing an eidetic memory and a painstaking attention to detail, Smiley, with the aid of his trusted protégé Peter Guillam, tracks down clues, interviewing former agents and hunting down information pointing to the contents of 'misplaced' or redacted files. Smiley's role is almost entirely cerebral, with Guillam doing the necessary legwork and occasional pilfering of evidence.

The title refers to the code names of the suspects, derived from a children's rhyme:

Tinker, tailor,
soldier, sailor,
rich man, poor man,
beggarman, thief.

Before the action of the novel, Smiley was a suspect, but was cleared by the old agency head, known simply as 'Control'. After clearing Smiley, there are three highly-ranked suspects in addition to the new agency head, hence the tagline which my post title refers to: "There are three of them, and Alleline." Smiley's mission is to uncover which of these individuals is, or are, responsible to feeding information to the Russian intelligence service.

The book was a quick, entertaining read- the dialogue is flawless, and the jargon invented by le Carré has an air of authenticity that has led to its adoption in real life. The action in the book is almost entirely cerebral- the hunt is a battle of wits, not a superfest di puncho puncho run run. The book also frankly depicts sexual matters such as Smiley's wife's infidelity and the probable same-sex romance between two extremely competent men of action, with no moral judgment attached to their relationship by le Carré.

Immediately after reading the novel, I hunted down the 1979 BBC miniseries starring Alec Guinness.

I wanted to cement in my head the complicated plot, and to be able to visualize the settings described in the book. I'm not a big TV watcher, but the miniseries was superb, anchored by a flawless lead performance- Alec Guinness conveys erudition, but can wither with a glare. The miniseries belongs to him, but actress/comedienne Beryl Reid runs away with a scene playing a former agency head of research who Smiley contacts for information regarding the probable Russian handler of the mole:

I particularly love the way she conveys the sheer delight she feels to be on the hunt again, to match her superb wit against her subtle enemy. It's to Alec Guinness' credit that he is content to be upstaged by his costar. Ms Reid's soliloquy also reveals the temptation presented to boys growing up during the death-throes of a world superpower: Trained to Empire, trained to rule the waves. Englishmen could be proud then, George. They could... All gone.

Both book and miniseries are fantastic, and complementary. In this era of renewed Russian actions against the West, they are good, timely reads.


mikey said...

Have you checked out Killing Eve?

It's not Le Carre, it's modern BBC, but it's a smart, clever, sometimes funny take on MI6 and stars two incredible, powerful, deeply interesting female characters.

I think you'd dig it...

Marc McKenzie said...

I remember the commercials for the miniseries as a kid, but never watched it nor read the book. I did see the superb 2011 movie with Gary Oldman as Smiley and Benedict Cumberbatch as Guillam (and pretty much all of the top actors in England).

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I’m going to have to check it out, mikey. These miniseries tend to be incredible.

I’ll have to watch that too, Mark. I’m a big fan of Gary’s. I saw an interview about this role and he acknowledged that he wouldn’t even attempt to emulate Sir Alec’s perfect performance.

Anonymous said...

G'morning, Bastard,
I write this as perhaps the greatest living fan of Tinker, Tailor, both the novel and the BBC series:

Skip the Gary Oldman film. It wanders too far afield, and neither Oldman no Cumberbatch is credible in the role. The swimming scenes were inserted by the writer / director for who-knows-what reason; they kill time and add nothing to plot, scene or tone. Besides, the novel simply can't be contained within the boundaries of a single movie.

Seek out the (once removed) sequel novel, Smiley's People; and the BBC series based on it. More Guinness, and a brilliant encore by Bernard Hepton as Tony Esterhase!

Big Bad Bald Bastard said...

I sure will, nonnymouse. Guinness totally owns the role, and I read that Beryl Reid is back as Connie Sachs. Thanks for the recommend.

Anonymous said...

What a dope I am! It's Toby Esterhase - oops, Signor Benati. Yes, more Beryl / Connie.

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