Written by Helen Currie Foster
Okay, I’m addicted to John Le Carré. I’ve repeatedly re-read his “Smiley Trilogy.” As you may know (but no spoilers), the seminal Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy tells us how George Smiley unmasked a mole in the British secret service (the “Circus”). Remember Alec Guinness as Smiley? Wonderful, but not as short and tubby as we imagine Smiley to be. When Smiley’s People was reissued, Le Carré wrote a preface referring to his completion of a trilogy: Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974); The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1979). Was he done, then? We’d hear no more about finding the Circus mole and foiling the Russian mastermind Karla? Could Smiley retire to study German poetry, maybe retrieve his beautiful unfaithful Ann?
John Le Carré will be 87 on October 19. In 2017, with A Legacy of Spies, Le Carré reaches back before Tinker, Tailor into The Spy Who Came in from The Cold (1963), where Alec Leamas (Richard Burton starred in the movie), is killed at the Berlin Wall. Indeed, Le Carré goes back to his 1961 debut, Call for the Dead, where we first meet Smiley, his subordinate Peter Guillam, and the German assassin Hans-Dieter Mundt.
Part of Le Carré’s genius is his use of point of view. Legacy is all told, first person, by Peter Guillam—described as “tall, tough and charming” in The Honourable Schoolboy, but always just a supporting character, never at the seat of power. In Legacy, the aging Guillam (white hair, hearing aids) is called back to a hostile Circus from his Brittany home. and informed he’s a defendant in a lawsuit concerning Leamas’s death. In Legacy Guillam is protagonist, not just narrator. He’s thrown into painful memories of the Leamas (apparent) debacle as, at the instruction of the current unlovable Circus bureaucrats, he slogs through years of records, some of which he wrote himself, including the one he wrote about the loss of his beloved—never mind. No spoilers.
In contrast, Tinker, Tailor builds the story with three points of view: first, that of George Smiley himself, forced to retire from the Circus by the nefarious Russian “Witchcraft” plot, and currently abandoned by his beautiful and unfaithful wife; second, that of Bill Roach, a “new boy” with “no friends” at the horrid Thursgood school where the wounded spy Jim Prideaux now teaches French; and third, that of Peter Guillam, another “Witchcraft” victim now banished to a dead-end Circus assignment in Brixton.
Roach’s observations of the new teacher, Prideaux, show us both Prideaux’s strength and charm, and the daily pain and fear left by his capture and torture. Prideaux names Roach a “watcher,” the “best watcher.” Roach worries himself sick, watching, fearing for Prideaux, and he’s the one who tells Prideaux that his peaceful isolation at this school has ended. Strangers are asking about Prideaux in the village. With sinking stomach Roach watches through the rainy window of Prideaux’s trailer as Prideaux reassembles his gun.
Guillam’s narration, as he helps Smiley undertake the search for the Circus’s Russian mole, tells us how he lies for Smiley and, heart thumping, sweat pouring down his back, steals records from the Circus that Smiley asks him to get. Guillam shares thoughts about Smiley that Smiley himself could never convey—his brilliance, his invincible calm in interrogation, his vulnerable invulnerability. We see Guillam as a romantic, still attached to the Circus by idealism and the drive for adventure that (we suspect) also characterize the author.
All three points of view build purpose and suspense. Without Roach, we could not share Roach’s acute terror about Prideaux’s situation. Without Roach we would not have seen Prideaux try to level his trailer in the rain, drink vodka to dull the pain of the bullet in his back, teach perfect French to his students, engage them in wildly wonderful play. Roach has made us care about Prideaux.
Smiley sees himself as a fat balding spy, cuckolded by his beautiful wife. Without Smiley’s point of view we would not feel his guilt as he opens bills reflecting his wife’s unfaithfulness, feel his irritation with the pompous ambition of the not particularly competent men running the Circus, feel his terror at waiting, feel his satisfaction as pieces fall into place, feel his conflicted but unshakable determination to find the mole.
Without Guillam’s point of view, we might not understand that he so admires Smiley that at Smiley’s instruction he’ll attempt the perilous theft of records about the Witchcraft plot, and coolly lie about his presence in the building (sweat running down his back) while he’s interrogated by superiors. With Guillam we feel a field man’s terror and joy in completing a successful field operation, but also his puzzlement about the multiple layers of the plot.
Back to the first-person narrative Le Carré uses in Legacy. One character, the reliable but somehow removed Peter Guillam, suddenly bears the emotional weight of decades of deception. We like him. Perhaps we feel he’s one of us: a field man, not a cerebral strategist like Smiley; still human, still romantic, but longing for rest. In Legacy we, with Guillam, come face to face with the secret he has suppressed for so long. We so want him to find rest. No spoilers., though.
John Le Carré! I’m drinking a toast to you tonight. Happy almost birthday!
Helen Currie Foster is the author of the Alice MacDonald Greer mystery series: GHOST CAVE, GHOST LETTER, GHOST DOG, and GHOST DAGGER. She works as a lawyer in Austin. Married with two children, she lives north of Dripping Springs, Texas, supervised by three burros.