The Honourable Schoolboy – John Le Carré (1977)

by Chingiz Ismailov

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.”