Smiley’s People – John Le Carré (1979)

by Chingiz Ismailov

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.'”