Mount Helicon Revue

Crude book surgery

Month: December, 2012

Smiley’s People – John Le Carré (1979)

Rarely is a trilogy (albeit in this case a loosely applied term) consistently terrific with each installment. We can find this to be the case with, for example, with Back to the Future and Lord of the Rings. Yet even the greatest minds and figures of art and literature can be accused of making crappy sequels, even those such as Milton or Dante. Le Carré seems to have outdone them in this respect.

The final part of the “Karla” trilogy, smaller in (geographical) scope than it’s predecessor, The Honourable Schoolboy, manages to focus in and nail precisely the overwhelming theme – at least in my opinion – of these novels: that of humanity in an inhuman world, that surreal secret dimension of international espionage.

Beginning with murder – both accomplished and attempted – the story sees, once more, Smiley called up out of retirement to find the killers of a defected Soviet General, also the leader of an Estonian émigré group in Western Europe. Following a trail of clues, he finds the breadcrumbs all lead right back to Karla, an almost mythical Soviet spymaster, with whom Smiley has a personal score to settle.

The “good” guys always win in the end. We know George Smiley, our favourite frumpy spy, must triumph over Karla. But what Le Carré gives us – beyond a fantastic Chandleresque detective story – is wonderment at how this is accomplished, and at what cost, material, emotional, and of course, moral. In the end, we wonder if Smiley has sold his soul for the satisfaction of his obsessive and vengeful search for his Soviet counterpart.

It is a much simpler story than before, less political, much less technical, but much more human. Once again Le Carré transcends the genre to the heights of classic literature. Smiley’s People will entice generations to come.

“‘George. Bless you. You’ve been a brick.'”


The Honourable Schoolboy – John Le Carré (1977)

After reading Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, I became totally enamoured with Le Carré’s particular brand of espionage novel. So I set out to try to read the entire ‘Karla’ trilogy. I do not regret a minute’s effort expended doing this. The Honourable Schoolboy is the second in the trilogy, and perhaps the least pertinent to the hunt for Karla: a shady Russian spymaster and antipode to the protagonist, George Smiley (a character who has enjoyed incarnation by Sir Alec Guinness and Gary Oldman).

The novel’s comings and goings revolve around the appointment of Smiley as the new head of ‘The Circus’, aka MI6, and an operative in his employ, Jerry Westerby. Westerby, the Honourable Schoolboy, is sent to the turbulent climes of South East Asia in search of a KGB money laundering operation with supposed links to Karla. Between Tuscany, where Jerry is pulled out of retirement, and the bittersweet climax on an island in the Hong Kong archipelago, we’re treated to a fantastic ride across a region torn apart by war and the puppeteering of powerful men.

A little more complex and wider in scope than Tinker, Tailor, Le Carré attacks with subtlety and poise the manipulations and dirty dealings of not only Western governments in the region, but the native bigwigs themselves. We see Cambodian villagers struggle for survival in a countryside ripped to shreds by the Khmer Rouge, when not hours ago we were at the races, or a fashion show, attended by all the big movers and shakers of Hong Kong.

Beyond thematic content, the story and characters are wonderfully crafted. I have always loved Le Carré’s ability to populate his world with fascinating characters, like Mexican drug runners, profligate hedonistic bankers, and particularly his original take on the femme fatale. But at the very core, lies his propensity for magnificent story telling. I couldn’t stop turning pages.

Stay tuned for the next in the series, Smiley’s People.

“Wives?” she asked, interrupting him. For a moment, he had assumed she was turning to the novel. Then he saw her waiting, suspicious eyes, so he replied cautiously, ‘None active,’ as if wives were volcanoes.”

Ubik – Phillip K. Dick (1969)

My hair is so dry, so unmanageable. What’s a girl to do? Simply rub in creamy Ubik hair conditioner. In just five days you’ll discover new body in your hair, new glossiness. And Ubik hairspray used as directed is absolutely safe.

Phillip K. Dick’s strange, dreamlike vision of an alternate future was my first spelunk into science fiction in a very long time. And what a spelunk it was. Diving right in, my first feelings were simply those of curiosity, and that singular excitement of beginning a new book, of exploring virgin territory. When I came to, several hours later, I found myself halfway through a novel of paranoia, fear, and conspiracy, involved in weird visions of a future not totally devoid of a sense of humour (particularly funny was the casts’ wardrobe. Read the book and you’ll see what I mean.)

Dick explores the line between life and death, using the idea of the cold-pac body preservation system. With this system, a person can be kept in a kind of temporary  ‘half-life’, and with certain devices, it is possible to communicate with a person preserved in such a way. At first, the line between life and death is clear. Glen Runciter, the boss of a prudence organisation – a company that employs people to negate the abilities of telepaths – wishes to speak to his wife Ella, preserved in a Zurich moratorium. Then he is killed by a competitor. Or is he? Dick begins to blur the line; it quickly becomes unclear who is alive, who is being played by telepaths and time-manipulators, and who is dead.

And that is the wonder of this book, the way Phillip K. Dick expertly manages to pull off this blurring, the way he can manage – without any overwrought flourishes or pretension – to utterly draw you into a surreal fantasy world. In the end, our only salvation is Ubik. Entirely harmless if used as directed.


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