I mentioned a while ago I was rereading my all-time favourite book which has stood by me through great times and difficult times and been an inspiration and a comfort to me. It’s a wonder to me that the author is not taught on literature courses as one of the great writers of the twentieth century. He was born in 1931, and after a public school education did National Service in the Intelligence Corps, serving in post-war Germany at a time when the country was split into West and East, the Bundesrepublik Deutschland, or Federal Republic of Germany as we knew it, and the Deutsche Demokratische Republik – the German Democratic Republic. He returned to England and went up to Oxford University, to Lincoln College, and at that point he was already spying on far-left groups at the University. It’s no doubt apparent now, that I’m thinking about John le Carré, my favourite author, and my favourite book, ’Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’. It was recreated as a TV series which perfectly captured not only the characters and plot, but the pace, the tension, the cleverness – unlike the disastrous 2011 film, which captured none of it.
In actual fact, after that long preamble, I’m not at present reading ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’, but the novel which follows it, the second in what’s known as ‘The Karla Trilogy’, ‘The Honourable School Boy’. I’ve read it a couple of times,, and am familiar with the main story-line, however I really don’t know it as well as T.,T.,S.,S. and it’s a while since I last settled down to it. What I had completely forgotten, wasn’t the preamble to the espionage ‘sting’ which the George Smiley and his team set up in London, taking several months to research and plan the operation, but the action involving placing an agent, Jerry Westerby in Hong Kong. There is plenty of action, but what struck me as I reread it, was the incredible descriptive powers of le Carré, bringing alive what was then the colony. The teeming population, the traffic, the social structure, the mix of different peoples from many different countries, Eastern and Western, the sights, the sounds, the smells – it’s incredible!
Without giving away any of the plot, Westerby travels on to war-torn Cambodia, Vietnam, and Thailand; it was a period when south-east Asia was in a violent turmoil, and I remember from the time the news footage which came out, American bombers and the bombing, sometimes of completely innocent and harmless local civilians, displaced people, explodions in the jungles, tales of torture and atrocities, completely pointless acts of terror, warlords, guerrillas, banditry, corruption, exploitation – I don’t know if le Carré actually visited those war zones, but he must have done a tremendous amount of research, to bring the dreadful episodes of the time so vividly and realistic leaping off the page.
I suppose because I know the story so well, know the characters (even if I have forgotten some of the details) I am not galloping through reading it, although it is compulsive and I cannot put it down, and I can appreciate even more what a truly extraodinary writer he is. He had a great ear for conversation and dialogue, a wonderful power of vividly describing scenes and action, sometimes quite simply, often quite beautifully. I came across a sentence which for some reason really struck me as elegantly written – it may not have the same effect on you, but I love the balance, the simplicity the way it evokes the scene. Westerby is deep in “enemy” territory, in a dangerous and fragile situation, and he’s trying to find a particular place, in the dark.
High walls blocked off the inner buildings, high wires crowned the walls, the barrels of the light anti-aircraft guns gleamed bronze against the black and soundless sky.
Beautiful, beautifully simple, wonderfully evocative.