In praise of older books: The Honourable Schoolboy by John Le Carré (1977)
Week 36: Le Carré’s spy stories are newly relevant now the cold war has warmed up
John Le Carré: his characters propel the narrative onwards. Photograph: John Macdougall/AFP/Getty Images
We thought the Soviet Union was transformed, the cold war finished, the KGB a thing of the past. Russia had been made anew. Thus, we might have thought that John Le Carré’s spy stories were now like archaeological digs, as fascinating as the passage tombs at Newgrange. Then along comes Vladimir Putin and we realise: plus ça change.
So: the book. An elegant sadness hangs over Le Carré’s work. His characters, boarding school boys, privileged but neglected and brutalised, are cursed with it. George Smiley, spymaster, is the prototype. The Honourable Jerry Westerby, cast in the same mould, is holed up in deepest Tuscany. Writing, he says. Living with another of Le Carré’s archetypes: the wounded girl, damaged and fragile. Then the telegram comes. He’s summoned to London.
Karla is the reason, of course. He’s Smiley’s opposite number. Described as a “Russian hood”, he recruited Smiley’s man, Bill Haydon, as his agent. Smiley has never forgiven the betrayal. Nor Haydon’s Karla-inspired affair with Smiley’s faithless wife, Ann. Karla’s sphere of influence is now the Far East. Jerry has to go.
You can read Le Carré for the spies, the sweep of history and politics, the bravery and the fear. Or for the love stories. Le Carré writes love with tenderness, regret and pain. In Hong Kong Jerry falls for Lizzie Worthington, her beauty marred by two small parallel scars like claw marks on her chin. She belongs to Mr Drake Ko, OBE. He was once a “Shanghainese mission boy. . . Shanghai was where it all started, you know. First Party cell ever was in Shanghai.” Now he’s Karla’s man. Is Lizzie a traitor, like Ko? Or just a fool? Ultimately it doesn’t matter. What does matter is Le Carré’s writing. He’s no mere plotter. His characters propel the narrative onwards. And today, as we watch Putin’s flat blue eyes and his half-smile, we would do well to remember, as Smiley does, “Our present war began in 1917, with the Bolshevik Revolution. It hasn’t changed yet.”