My staple diet of spies has until now been catered to by a flood of Len Deightons, a stream of Jack Higgins and a cascade of Alistair Macleans. My tryst with John le Carre was restricted to a single book whose title i struggle to recollect. A few days back my curiosity was piqued courtesy a review of “Legacy of Spies”, le Carre’s latest offering. What caught my eye in particular was the glowing references to the reappearance after 25 years of one of le Carre’s favourite fictional spies, George Smiley. This was sufficient to arouse in me an insatiable urge to know more of the exploits and escapades of the ubiquitous George Smiley and I post haste proceeded to order the first of the Smiley books “Call for the dead”.
Suffice it to say it has been nothing like all those thrillers that I have read before, in an astonishingly positive way! The stout, non decrepit personality of George Smiley contrasting with his razor sharp intellect and cutting edge intuition is an absolute joy to savour. Unlike Fleming’s flamboyant, irresistible, multi-talented, murderous playboys, le Carre’s hero is unostentatious. Defeated in love and dejected with a failed marriage, George Smiley is an un-glamorous fixture in the British Secret Service. Prone to bouts of reflection, introspection, guilt and nostalgia, Smiley seeks refuge in his scrupulous attention to duty and often times, a febrile imagination.
“Call for the Dead” begins with a routine, formal, run-of-the-mill interview that Smiley is tasked with involving Samuel Fennan of the Foreign Office. The objective is basically to clear the air and dust the covers off Fennan’s involvement with Communist activities. To Smiley’s satisfaction the interview takes a highly favourable trajectory and Fennan is more or less deemed to be clean. But to the incredulous bewilderment of Smiley and his condescending and pretentious boss, Maston, Fennan is found dead the very next morning courtesy a supposedly self inflicted bullet wound to the head. When Fennan’s Jewish wife Elsa Fennan starts depicting a behaviour that is out of the ordinary and Smiley becomes the object of a blotched assassination attempt, things start turning dangerously murky.
In contemporary spy literature, it is almost an unfortunate given that a book cannot be spiced up without the customary high speed car chase, the inevitable seduction followed by an invariable romp in bed and an extended climax involving cliff hangers, choppers and a staccato of automatic gunfire. le Carre shows how untrue such a concept is. The book never loses steam despite not containing a single adrenaline pumping, testosterone enhancing action sequence. The embellishment instead comes from a language stupendous in its simplicity and searing in its impact. For example, consider this sentence where Smiley describes Maston, “Maston, apologetically extending his empire and regretfully moving to even larger offices; Maston, holding smart-house parties at Henley and feeding on the success of his subordinates”.
I view my neglect of le Carre with a strange mixture of repentance and relief. Repentance for having deprived myself of the pleasure and thrill arising from the reading of such a magnificent author and a perverse relief in a conviction that the longer one denies gratification, more enjoyable the experience upon its consumption!