The unglamorous model of a spy and his achievements

By Vikas Datta

The rather immense human propensity for self-delusion, or even what psychologists would term “wish-fulfilment”, can also influence fiction, even its variant seeking to appear realistic. Heroes (and heroines) are expected to be attractive, brave and so on, mental attributes dispensed with or delegated (to supporting characters), and good and evil delineated. The espionage genre offers a good example.

Even before James Bond — who in his cinematic avatar began to exemplify what TVTropes calls spy fiction’s “Martini Flavoured” brand — spies/secret agents like John Buchan’s Richard Hannay, Dennis Wheatley’s Gregory Sallust and the like were clean-cut and/or debonair and on the “good” side morally. Though W. Somerset Maugham’s Ashenden, Desmond Cory’s Johnny Fedora or the Bond of Ian Fleming’s novels, display a darker and morally ambiguous view, they do not dispense with hedonism, amorous dalliances and so on.

It was only in the 1960s, along the glittering celluloid adventures of Bond, that spies began to be depicted as they were liable to be (“Stale Beer-Flavoured”) — and not what we thought they were. John Le Carre and Len Deighton — deemed the trinity of late 20th century spy fiction writers (along with Fleming) — showed spies not as dashing or sharply dressed or in the prime of life or health.

And then their protagonists were also liable to be jaded, jealous and under-appreciated or shabbily-treated even though polite, self-effacing but, more importantly, efficient. For cunning and capable of action when needed, they, with their wider experience and memory and inclination to groom promising juniors, were more efficient than their flashy, flamboyant colleagues.

The duo also show how the spy trade involved multiple layers of betrayal, duplicity, deception and moral ambiguity and compromises — that overshadowed the protagonists’ personal lives too — and as much intra- and inter-service rivalry than matching wits with the opponents.

But even more than Deighton’s unnamed, working class “hero” (Harry Palmer in the film versions) introduced in “The Ipcress File”, it was David John Moore Cornwell, alias Le Carre, who, with George Smiley, showed what modern spying is. While this was due to him being a former spy, Le Carre not only popularised existing espionage stock phrases but also coined new ones, which even spies began using. “Mole” and “honey trap” are the best-known.

Le Carre admitted he created Smiley as a foil to Bond, a character whom he deemed an inaccurate and damaging version of a spy. And the two characters couldn’t be more different. On one hand, Bond is a rakish, ruthless and Casanova-like man of action, while Smiley is short, bespectacled, indifferently-garbed, oblivious of luxuries, serially betrayed by his young and beautiful wife and only stands by his habit of using his tie to wipe his spectacles.

Appearing in nine of Le Carre’s two dozen-strong oeuvre, Smiley ambled on in “Call for the Dead” (1961). After detailing his World War II activities (his superiors noting he had “the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin”), it comes to the present, where he is now at a low-level position in the “Circus” (Le Carre’s name for the Secret Service), vetting government servants’ security levels.

After someone he has just probed commits suicide, Smiley resigns and launches an independent probe. Finding it was murder, he digs on to unearth the East German spy ring responsible, even killing one of its leading members, whom he had worked with in the war. He is invited back into the service, but declines.

His next appearance is in “A Murder of Quality” (1962), which is more a murder mystery than an espionage novel, though still involving former spies. He then plays a key but background role in Le Carre’s most famous work “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” (1963) where he is back in service, as well as “The Looking-Glass War” (1965), which is actually a dark satire.

After a hiatus, he reappears to star in “The Karla Trilogy”, beginning with “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” (1974), where we learn tensions between the Circus’ head, Control, and his number two leads to factions springing up and after an operation spectacularly fails, Control (and Smiley) are eased out. However, when a top bureaucrat overseeing security operations learns of a Soviet mole, it is Smiley he summons to detect the traitor.

Smiley finds the mole, put in place by a Soviet spymaster only known as “Karla”, who knowing his capability, had even planned a personal strategem to discredit him. Made the service chief, he is asked to plan something to rehabilitate it. This he does in “The Honourable Schoolboy” (1977) but is again eased out in a ploy by ambitious subordinates who involve the Americans while his protege is gunned down. Finally, in “Smiley’s People” (1979), he is again called back to help launch an operation that ends with them getting hands on “Karla”, but Smiley is disgusted that he had to use his adversary’s methods against him.

His last two appearances are cameos.

However, Smiley’s significance is not in what he achieves but doing it despite the way he is treated. That makes him a hero, and a lesson for some of us.

(Vikas Datta is an Associate Editor at IANS. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at vikas.d@ians.in)

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