An Unlikely Hero: George Smiley
A tribute to George Smiley, a fictional character created by John le Carré.
It was in April 2012 that Mr. George Smiley walked into my life.
In Hong Kong, the Saturday afternoon in question was drizzly, but I was feeling the heat of a Ph.D. programme, after my supervisor had lovingly dissected yet another draft of yet another chapter. To distract myself from the existential questions occasioned by the dissection, I went for a stroll, and found myself, as usual, gravitating towards the AMC Cinemas located at the mall near my university. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, described as a slow burn spy thriller, was listed among the films for the afternoon, and it had in the cast Gary Oldman, who plays Jim Gordon in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy and Sirius Black in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. Forgetting lunch, I booked a ticket and went to the designated screen.
A little while into the film the character played by Oldman put in his first appearance: a tubby, bespectacled and bedraggled man in an ill-fitting suit. Hardly James Bond, was he, but this was Mr. George Smiley, a case-man at ‘The Circus’, John Le Carré’s name of choice for Britain’s overseas intelligence wing. I would be lying if I said that Mr. Smiley made an immediate impression on me, for neither his scenes, nor the film itself registered much in my memory. Or so I thought until three years later when I read a friend’s review of Le Carré’s book Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on which the film was based and immediately recalled a number of things about it.
The next time I was in a bookstore I picked up the novel and, being literally jobless, finished it in a single night. I was so taken up with the way George Smiley’s character was written that I immediately started looking for Le Carré’s other works in which Smiley plays a role, however minor. While Smiley figures, as far as I now know, in nine of Le Carré’s novels, the centre piece of the Smiley lore, as it were, is his battle of wits with Karla, a mostly unseen but extremely powerful Soviet Spymaster. This battle spans three novels, the first of which is the aforementioned Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the second The Honourable School Boy and the third Smiley’s People.
In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley is tasked with uncovering a mole planted by Karla at the height of the Cold War deep into The Circus. Smiley’s long and meticulous research into the relevant files helps him find out who the mole is, but the discovery comes to him, alas, at a great personal cost. In The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley, who is acting head of The Circus, must uproot a Soviet conspiracy involving a local luminary in British-occupied Hong Kong, but at the cusp of success, he realises – with a philosophical shrug – that the credit for his catch (spoiler alert!) is probably going to be taken by others.
In Smiley’s People, which I am currently reading, Smiley is called out of retirement to investigate the murder of a semi-retired former agent of The Circus and finds himself recognising once again the deft clandestine footwork of Karla. Will he succeed in outwitting Karla for good? Even if he does, I wonder if it will turn out to be an outright triumph for Smiley who is often left alone with a well-meaning sigh and sometimes – or so I would like to imagine – with an understanding smile perhaps because of his (sur)name.
If one sets aside the subtle political aspects of these books and focus solely on Smiley, he emerges from them as an atypical hero, but a hero nonetheless in my considered view. If Smiley’s physical appearance, hinted at earlier, marks him out as an oddball at least in the fictional world of espionage, his character, as well as pastimes, makes him more of a thinker and less of a spy. For all that – and perhaps because of that too – I find him endearing because he is understated, fallible and, ultimately, human. He is also undemonstratively steadfast in his convictions – even if that makes him seem like an anachronism in the world he has inherited – but is more than happy to accommodate others’ values, or the lack thereof.
He is, in short, my kind of hero; or, as a student memorably put it a month ago, my kind of person.
Srinivas S is a phonologist by training and in thought, and teaches English at the Rishi Valley School, India. He has let accents, cricket and poetry partake equally of his mind; and spends his free time marshalling his thoughts on these subjects, often while taking long walks. His writings have found a home in places such as ESPNcricinfo, Amethyst Review, Borderless Journal, Narrow Road Journal and The Hong Kong Review as well as in a number of haiku journals.