- - Monday, December 19, 2011

George Smiley is, after a fashion, back. The grim and shabby would-be hero of John le Carre’s renowned “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy” - and a clutch of other best-sellers - has been resurrected for the screen and indeed for a new generation.

Fortunate is the writer whose work finds a fresh audience decades down the road, and it would be churlish to begrudge the fantastically successful le Carre, a tremendous writer when at the top of his game, another late dollop of glory. But there is some irony in seeing the most famous spies of the Cold War, more well-known even than their famous real-life analogues, re-emerge at a different time, in the midst of a different war.

In Swedish director Tomas Alfredson’s new screen adaptation, Gary Oldman admirably captures much of the original Smiley’s morose incorruptibility - but, as one says, times have changed.

To reread the Smiley novels is to be reminded not so much of that older war as of that older England. The books are suffused with the unmistakable details of time and place - the England of the lace curtain and the tea cosy, the seedy subterranean nightclub and the dour railway station. Stereotypes, then as now, but none the less true for that. It is an England that is particularly English, long before Tony Blair was promoting a swank internationalism and there were Polish plumbers in Knightsbridge and Italian barmen pulling pints in Soho. It is, we might say, an England where the English were stone certain, or thought they were, of their place in the world.


The uproar that has greeted David Cameron, the current Tory prime minister, for refusing to “save” the euro has made plain how very far away that quaint notion now appears in the rearview mirror. Mr. Cameron’s own government is divided over what to do, and his own deputy, key to his coalition’s hold on power, is in open revolt. That English certainty of purpose, arguably always only a chimera, is now little more than a memory.

The world, to put it another way, seems more interconnected now. Europe, by design, of course surely is - leaving England, inevitably, less English. Yet even Mr. le Carre’s most ardent fans, and there are rightly very many, cannot avoid ruing how these tectonic upheavals have revealed themselves in his work and perhaps especially in the author himself.

It is worth recalling that Mr. le Carre made his bones with “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold.” The book’s moral ambiguity, jarring to many at the time (1963), dispensed with the hoary trappings of the traditional spy novel and portrayed a world in which there was perhaps still a shilling’s difference between the good guys and the bad guys, but in which the practitioners on both sides suffered just the same.

Mr. le Carre went on to tap that rich vein of nuance most powerfully in “Tinker, Tailor” - a tragedy of personal and national loyalty betrayed, in which everything hinges on one man’s conclusion that that shilling’s difference no longer obtains. Loosely based on the infamous Cambridge Five (the upper-class English spies discovered to be double-agents working for the Soviet Union in the early days of the Cold War), the novel, among its many other qualities, demonstrates a kind of apotheosis of Englishness. Smiley is coaxed out of retirement to find the Soviet mole, and duly does so with a stiff-upper-lip perseverance. But the discovery of the identity of the culprit comes at a shocking personal cost to Smiley that, in keeping with the English reserve of the day, is never overtly expressed. A marvelous plot twist at the end underscores just how far a people once went to refrain from speaking the unspeakable.

That manner of restraint has gone missing, for all of England, as well as for Mr. le Carre himself. When the deputy prime minister of the United Kingdom is vocal and explicit in his criticism of his own government, it is difficult to argue that its subjects should bite their tongues.

Mr. le Carre is vocal about his politics now, from Salman Rushdie’s Iranian fatwa (“It doesn’t make a martyr of him”) to the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq. (“It seems to me that any politician who takes his country to war under false pretenses has committed the ultimate sin.”) He has, as they say, earned his stripes, and it will be down to audiences to decide if this new film, much more in the style of the later Mr. le Carre than the earlier, convinces. But there is no doubting the originals. The Smiley books are brilliant; read them, just read them.