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Recommended by Cormac Millar

4. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY by John le Carré (1974)

This book is a miracle of construction, the product of an organized, well-stocked and compassionate mind, brilliantly reconciling the author's contradictory tendencies towards classic discipline and towards emotional expansiveness. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is long, detailed and demanding, but (unlike many long books) it has not an ounce of padding: every scene is terse and load-bearing. The book marries together several genres -- school story, spy story, political novel, morality play, memoir -- mapping them onto a vast canvas of Cold War intrigue, accurately depicting the world of the 1950s, 60s and 70s, out of joint and compressed by fear. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy moves seamlessly between the private, secret and public spheres, never belittling any of them, never losing the connections. It manages to convey an impression of unending diversity, ceaselessly introducing fresh scenes and characters, beautifully voiced and crisply described, while channeling all these centrifugal forces into a constant forward thrust towards the solution to a precise problem. Mystery lies at the heart of the novel, in two senses: there is an exact sequence of whodunwhat to be scupulously puzzled out, and there are the wider questions of who we are, what shapes us, and how the hopes and loves than give us our being will also betray us.

The surface mystery is so well known that there is no need to rehearse it in detail: George Smiley, summoned back from retirement, conspires to unmask a great traitor at the heart of the British spy establishment, a narcissistic genius who has pulled his organization inside out, converting it into a channel for selling Western secrets to the Russians. Tiny clues are sifted, patterns discerned, little traps set and sprung. Files are switched and borrowed. Weapons are cached. A switch is rewired. A conversation is recorded. The progress of Smiley's campaign is physically and intellectually exciting, and the results as satisfying as the ones you read in heroic literature from simpler times: Odysseus reclaiming his court, Mr Toad recapturing Toad Hall from the weasels and stoats. Here, however, the surface story is both enhanced and negated by the intimacy of the personal dimension: the spy world deals with whole societies and their fates, but reflects these large social concerns through the convex mirror of a small bubble within which people know each other in positively indecent detail, and where all differences become irredeemably personal. So there is no great sense of triumph and rightness at the end. Grand gestures of romantic justice seem out of place, and the structures for which one may be called to give one's life (or the lives of others) are shown not to deserve such sacrifice. One has to muddle on with the dissatisfactions of real life.

The book is hugely enriched by its fascinating gallery of sharply-etched characters, ranging from the exotic, camp and pretentious to the dullest everyday dog. It gains an crucial moral dimension by contrasting the drab comforts of England with the tragic fate of Czechoslovakia, here presented as a suffering outpost of the Soviet Union, but also reminding the reader of the huge historic failure of 20th century Europe to rid itself of Nazism. That dual vision confirms the status of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy as a definitive portrait of the pre-1989 East-West settlement. Later works such as A Perfect Spy continue to mine the same productive seam.

A final virtue: although steeped in a love of poetic English words, cadences and placenames, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is refreshingly disloyal to its author's background. Le Carré is not a man for simple pieties: unlike the villain of this book, he is a genuine artist and a free spirit.




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