Category: I was inspired to read this after I saw the movie version with Benedict Cumberbatch, et al.
My thoughts: If I’m being honest, the basic idea of the Cold War—East vs. West; U.S. vs. USSR—was introduced to me by the cinematic classic…Rocky IV. Perhaps this did not present a balanced view of a complex, decades-long conflict. As someone born during, but toward the end of, the Cold War, I was only able to really view, or attempt to understand it, when I got older. And now I am incredibly fascinated by the Cold War, which could almost be called World War III. I mention all of this because Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is FULL of Cold War intrigue.
Another thing that inspired me to read TTSS is the letters of Jessica Mitford. In her letters, she mentions Michael Straight, who was involved in the infamous British spy ring. That spy ring inspired Le Carré to write TTSS.
So, the plot. TTSS takes place in 1973. Just to set the scene: at this time, there was East Germany and West Germany. Poland, the former Czechoslovakia, and Hungary were “satellite countries” of the USSR, which was still in formation. TTSS is set among the world of British intelligence officers who work at the Circus, Britain’s intelligence agency. At the beginning of the story, George Smiley is brought out of retirement in order to discover the identity of a mole in the Circus. He and his former boss Control, had previously been fired after a disastrous mission in Czechoslovakia. For his investigation, Smiley teamed up with Peter Guillam, another Circus guy. Peter was my favorite character. When the mole is ultimately revealed, Peter feels “not only betrayed but orphaned.” He looked up to the older Circus agents, one of whom was the mole, and he felt the sense that the grown-ups had failed him.
TTSS is not an easy-breezy read. There is a pretty big cast of characters—I had to keep a list of them. Two of the most intriguing characters, however, are “off-screen,” so to speak—Ann, Smiley’s unfaithful wife, and Karla, Smiley’s adversary in Moscow Centre (the Russian intelligence agency). TTSS also highlights the idea that Britain was not exactly a central figure in the Cold War, whose chief “combatants” were the United States and the Soviet Union. Not only that, but by 1973, the British Empire was mostly a memory—a fond one for some of the characters. The idea of nostalgia for the faded Empire is a central one in the novel. TTSS is a very engrossing read. And certainly more nuanced than Rocky IV.
Great passage: And his fancy that he was being followed? What of that? What of the shadow he never saw, only felt, till his back seemed to tingle with the intensity of his watcher’s gaze; he saw nothing, heard nothing, only felt. He was too old not to heed the warning. The creak of a stair that had not creaked before; the rustle of a shutter when no wind was blowing; the car with a different number plate but the same scratch on the offside wing; the face on the Metro that you know you have seen somewhere before: for years at a time these were signs he had lived by; any one of them was reason enough to move, change towns, identities. For in that profession there is no such thing as coincidence.