The Stone City

Words Made to Last

Friday, June 10, 2005

Old, and Cold, and Weary

John le Carre's Smiley trilogy are fine spy novels, still considered the best in their field. But they were also products of the 1970's, when they were written, and they partook in the frustration and defeatism of the age.
This is not so visible in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy [published in 1974; the best of the three, despite its appalling title]. But it shows early and often in The Honourable Schoolboy [1977], set in the decimated Circus "after the fall" and in the corrupt chaos of Southeast Asia. Jerry Westerby, the Schoolboy, visits Thailand shortly before the fall of Saigon, and le Carre's portrayal of the corruption, chaos and cynicism is masterful. For example:

"The usual snafu," he went on. "Bad guys are too weak to take the towns, good guys are too crapped out to take the countryside, and nobody wants to fight except the Coms. Students ready to set fire to the place soon as they're no longer exempt from the war, food riots any day now, corruption like there was no tomorrow, no one can live on his salary, fortunes being made, and the place bleeding to death. Palace is unreal and the Embassy is a nut-house, more spooks than straight guys and all pretending they've got a secret. Want more?"

"How long do you give it?"

"A week. Ten years."

"How about the airlines?"

"Airlines is all we have. Mekong's good as dead, so's the roads. Airlines have the whole ballpark. We did a story on that. You see it? They ripped it to pieces. Jesus," he said to the girl. "Why do I have to give a rerun for the poms?"

"More," said Jerry, writing.

"Six months ago this town had five registered airlines. Last three months we got thirty-four new licensed issued and there's like another dozen in the pipeline. Going rate is three million riels to the Minister personally and two million spread around his people. Less if you pay gold, less still if you pay abroad. We're working route thirteen," he said to the girl. "Thought you'd like to take a look."

"Great," said the girl and pressed her knees together, entrapping Keller's good hand.

By the writing of Smiley's People [1979], le Carre was reporting the same debasement in Europe. In one sickeningly memorable scene, Smiley emerges from investigating the torture and murder of a German associate to find that the natives, who ignored the screams of the day before, have vandalized his car:

Smiley had the key in the ignition, but by the time he turned it, one of the boys had draped himself over the bonnet as languidly as a model at a motor show and the other was tapping politely at the window. Smiley lowered the window. "What do you want?" he asked.

The boy held out his palm. "Repairs," he explained. Your boot didn't shut properly. Time and materials. Overheads. Parking." He indicated his thumb-nail. "My colleague here hurt his hand. It could have been serious."

Smiley looked at the boy's face and saw no human instinct that he understood."You have repaired nothing. You have done damage. Ask your friend to get off the car."

The boys conferred, seeming to disagree. They did this under the full gaze of the crowd, in a reasoned manner, slowly pushing each other's shoulders and making rhetorical gestures that did not coincide with their words. They talked about nature and about politics, and their Platonic dialogue might have gone on indefinitely if the boy who was on the car had not stood up in order to make the best of a debating point. As he did so, he broke off a windscreen wiper as if it were a flower and handed it to the old man.

Le Carre sees the same rot in England, too, and reports it bitterly as well. To represent the defenders of the old way, he gives us Smiley's father-in-law:
At least I haven't got to talk about Communists to mad Harry, Smiley thought while he waited. At least I haven't got to hear how all the Chinese waiters in Penzance are standing by for the order from Peking to poison their customers. Or how the bloody strikers should be put up against a wall and shot -- where's their sense of service, for Christ's sake?
This defeatism; this feeling, stronger than mere knowledge, that there are no good guys anywhere; is the lasting legacy of that decade. At Smiley's parting from Ann, le Carre brings back the same Rupert Brooke line which he used as the epigraph for The Looking Glass War:
To turn as swimmers into cleanness leaping
Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary.
Yes, he thought glumly. That's me.