The Smila v/s Karla trilogy featured 3 novels – ‘Tinker, Soldier, Sailor, Spy’, ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’ and ‘Smiley’s People’. In the first novel Karla bested Smiley’s boss, Control, and Smiley was recalled to pick the pieces. In the second adventure there was little honour but the spoils were shared – Smiley busted a valued resource nurtured by Karla but was banished into retirement again due to the political machinations within the Circus. In Smiley’s People, Smiley triumphs over Karla and coerces him into defecting to the West. In terms of characterization it jars but the Pyrrhic Victory robs even Smiley of the mission that drove him all his working life as a spy. It is indeed curtains on the crumbling communist bloc, Karla and even Smiley’s own career.
Karla and Smiley face off once again – this time it is on a rainy day in the city of Berlin in West Germany. Neither utters a word. There is no sense of triumph as the long fought battle comes to an end. Indeed Smiley is past everything except perhaps a weary sense of patriotism that justifies the relentless pursuit of Karla that is ‘Smiley’s People’.
The BBC mini-series adaptation does a fine job again and is a trifle inferior only to the original, ‘Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy’. Alec Guinness is featured again as the redoubtable George Smiley. The Circus has let him down on numerous occasions but Smiley is their ‘Man-Friday’ whenever disaster strikes. Viewers familiar with Le Carré’s novels and the previous BBC mini series will be able to relate better to the narrative that unwinds at a slow pace.
Smiley has finally been pushed into retirement as the Circus politics sharpened to feast over the spoils of the previous mission featured as ‘The Honourable Schoolboy’. Indeed it should have been a feather in Smiley’s cap but he was never the one to jockey for power and position with his political masters. He recedes to the background but some of his old loyals remain active. In particular a spy agent, General Vladimir, is tipped off a plot involving Smiley’s nemesis Karla. He tries to activate his contact with the Circus but the new establishment fails him. His brutal murder brings Smiley back to action.
Again the Circus has a simple aim of brushing all that is inconvenient under the carpet but Smiley has other plans as he realizes that the crisis presents him an opportunity to smoke out Karla. The novel has Smiley in action as a spy rather than poring over files and doing cerebral exercises. Here Smiley moves fast and covers a lot of ground by meeting his old network of Russian agents, taxing the ageing and bitter Connie Sachs about Karla’s personal life and then following up the clues provided by the General.
It is a shady game but familiar territory for Smiley. Everybody is trying to play the game to his advantage. A lot is left unsaid and on occasions they try to throw Smiley off the track. A series of murders fail to hide the trail that leads Smiley to Karla. A lot of this is happening right under the nose the Circus top brass who fail to recognize the disdain Smiley feels for their methods and objectives. And by the time the Chief smells the mischief Smiley is a position to offer them Karla. His sense of loyalty to the Circus motivates him although he realizes that things are rotten in their own set up as well. Indeed Connie Sachs echoes his sentiments when she says, ”It’s not a fighting war, not like in our days. It’s gray -half devils and half angels. Nobody knows where the goodies are.”
Smiley moves in for the kill and sets up a trap to unmask Karla’s Achilles Heel – a mentally disturbed daughter, Tatiana a.ka. Alexandra who has been smuggled into a high-end Swiss sanatorium for treatment. Smiley uncovers the evidence to establish Karla’s hand in trying to protect and cure his daughter. He has the bargain chip to bait Karla to jump the ship. It eventually happens as per plan but it isn’t quite convincing. Karla has been a formidable foe for long and his ruthless methods seem to suggest a person who won’t be moved from his life’s purpose for the benefit of his daughter. Indeed in the same story it is suggested that Karla had a mistress who bore him the daughter but he had her sent over to the Gulag when she challenged him.
Still the action packed story moving quickly to Hamburg, Baltic Sea, Paris, Bern and finally West Berlin keeps us engaged and soon enough it is time for the final denouement. At the appointed hour, Karla smuggles himself as a worker across the bridge connecting East and West Berlin. He looks Smiley in the eye and throws Smiley’s lighter as a sign of their détente. The Circus team takes over and is overjoyed at the mission’s success.
Smiley is unmoved as he has paid the ultimate prize to achieve his final mission. He acknowledges to himself that it is an imperfect system and there is no heroism or honour in what he has finally accomplished. Indeed Le Carré has acknowledged that Maugham was the first person to write about espionage in a mood of disenchantment and almost prosaic reality through his spy stories series Ashenden published in 1928.