Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy

“a brilliant spy and George2
totally inadequate man.”

That’s how he was described in a review in the British magasin Spectator, George Smiley, the main character in the ultimate spy novel – The Quest for Karla by John le Carré. I should have written novels because it’s actually a case of three bricks of novels: Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy (1974) The honourable schoolboy (1977) Smiley’s people (1979) set at the pike of the Cold war, with Smiley wrestling to overcome his Russian counterpart, Karla. Smiley is in many ways the antipode to James Bond. He’s a fat, middle-aged man, quiet and mild-mannered. He’s not an athlete; he has no use for fast cars; he can’t be imagined in a physical fight and he’s not a womanizer. (On the contrary – it’s his wife, Ann, who hops from bed to bed). I’ve chosen a scene from Tinker, tailor, soldier, spy, because the novel has both been filmed and made into a TV-series, so I can show the same scene but with different directors and different actors to personify George Smiley.  Forgive me, John le Carré, I’ve shortened your text somewhat! It’s not because a single word you’ve written is unnecessary, but because I don’t have a scanner and I’m a bad typist! George Smiley is telling his subordinate, Peter Guillam, about the only time he had met his Russian protagonist, Karla or Gerstmann, as Karla then called himself. At that time Karla was not very well known to the western intelligence services. He had set up a network in San Fransisco , but it had been rolled up, and he’d been ordered to return to Moscow, where he most likely was to be executed. On his way home he was arrested in India on request of the Brits. Smiley flew out to Dehli to try to persuade him to defect to the West.

” I don’t think I had come across a clearer case of defection. I had only to convince him of the arrest of the San Fransisco network—wave the press photographs and cuttings from my briefcase—talk to him a little about the unfriendly conspiracies of brother Rudnev in Moscow”.


“The heat in the jail was appalling”, Smiley continued. “The cell had an iron table at the centre and iron cattle rings let into the wall. They brought him manacled, which seemed silly because he was so slight. I asked them to free his hands and when they did, he put them on the table in front of him and watched blood come back. It must have been painful but he didn’t comment on it”.


”I have a theory which I suspect is rather immoral,” Smiley went on more lightly. “Each of us has only a quantum of compassion. That if we lavish our concern on every stray cat, we never get to center of things. What do you think of it?”

“What was Karla like?” Guillam asked, treating the question as rhetorical.

“Avuncular. Modest and avuncular. He would have looked very well as a priest: the shabby, gnomic variety one sees in small Italian towns. Little wiry chap, with silvery hair, bright brown eyes and plenty of wrinkles. Or a schoolmaster, he could have been a schoolmaster: tough, whatever that means, and sagacious within the limits of his experience: but the small canvas all the same. He made no other initial impression, except that his gaze was straight and it fixed on me from early in our talk. If you can call it a talk, seeing that he never uttered a word. Not one, the whole time we were together: not a syllable. Also it was stinking hot and I was travelled to death”.


“He wasn’t sweating; I was profusely. I totted out my piece, as I had a dozen times that year already, except that there was obviously no question of his being played back to Russia as our agent. ‘ You have the alternative. It’s no one else’s business but your own. Come to the West, and we can give you, within reason, a decent life. After questioning, at which you are expected to co-operate, we can help you to a new start, a new name, seclusion, a certain amount of money. On the other hand you can go home and I suppose they’ll shoot you or send you to a camp. Last month they sent Bykov, Shur and Muranov. So why don’t you tell me your real name?’ Something like that. Then I sat back, wiped away the sweat and waited for him to say ‘Yes, thank you’. He did nothing. He didn’t speak. He simply sat there stiff and tiny under the fan that didn’t work and looked at me with his brown, rather jolly eyes. Hands out in front of him”.


“It was then, I think, that an extraordinary feeling of unease began to creep over me. The heat was really getting to me. The stench was terrible and I remember listening to the pat pat of my own sweat falling onto the iron table. It wasn’t just his silence; his physical stillness began to get under my skin”.


“I can understand”, said Guillam quietly.

“Can you? Sitting is an eloquent business, any actor will tell you that. We sit according to our natures. We sprawl and straddle, we rest like boxers between rounds, we fidget, perch, cross and uncross our legs, lose patience, lose endurance. Gerstmann did none of those things. His posture was finite and irreducible, his little jagged body was like a promontory of rock; he could have sat that way all day withut stírring a muscle. Whereas I—”


“What did you do? “Guillam asked with a laugh.

“So anyway there came this gap’”Smiley resumed disregarding the question. “Hardly of Gerstmann’s making, since he was all gap anyway; so of mine then. I had said my piece; I had flourished the photographs, that he ignored”.


“I restated this part, that part and a few variations, and finally I dried up. Or rather sat there sweating like a pig. Well any fool knows if ever that happens, you get up and walk out: ‘take it or leave it’ you say. ‘See you in the morning’; anything. ‘Go away and think for an hour.’ As it was, the next thing I knew I was talking about Ann.” He left no time for Guillam’s muffled exclamation. “Oh, not about my Ann, not as in many words. About his Ann. I assumed he had one. I had asked myself, lazily no doubt, what would a man think of in such a situation, what would I? And my mind came up with a subjective answer: his woman. Is it called projection or substitution? I detest those terms but I’m sure one of them applies. I exchanged my predicament for his, that is the point, and as I now realise I began to conduct an interrogation with myself—he didn’t speak, can you imagine?”


“I also knew from the American observation reports that Gerstmann was a chain-smoker: Camels. I sent out for several packs of them—packs is the American word?


‘To go back would be a quixotic act,’ I told him, of no material value to his wife, or anyone, quite the reverse. She would be ostracised; at best she would be allowed to see him briefly before he was shot. On the other hand, if he threw in his lot with us, we might be able to trade her; we had a lot of stock in those days remember, and some of it was going back to Russia as barter, though why in God’s name we should have used it up for that purpose is beyond me. Surely, I said, she would prefer to know him safe and well in the West, with a fair chance that she herself would join him, than shot or starving to death in Siberia? I really harped upon her: his expression encouraged me. I could have sworn I was getting through to him, that I had found the chink in his armor: when of course all I was doing—all I was doing was showing him the chink in mine”.


“I tore open a packet and offered Gerstmann a cigarette. ‘Come,’ I said, ‘you’re a chain-smoker, everyone knows that. And this is your favourite brand.’ My voice sounded strained and silly, and there was nothing I could do about it. Gerstmann stood up and politely indicated to the warders that he would like to return to the cell.”


“As he left the cell he changed his mind and helped himself to a packet of cigarettes and the lighter from the table, my lighter, a gift from Ann. ‘To George from Ann with all my love.’ I would never have dreamed of letting him take it in the ordinary way; but this was not the ordinary way.”

Next morning Smiley goes back to the prison to once again try to persuade Karla to defect:

“I didn’t beseech him,” Smiley said, going straight on. “He never would have been swayed by histronics. His plane left in the mid-morning; I still had two hours, I am the worst advocate in the world but in these two hours I tried to summon all the reasons I knew for his not flying to Moscow. I believed, you see, that I had seen something in his face that was superior to mere dogma; not realising that it was my own reflection. I had convinced myself that Gerstmann ultimately was accessible to ordinary human arguments coming from a man of his own age and profession and, well, durability. I didn’t promise him wealth and women and Cadillacs and cheap butter, I accepted he had no use for those things. I had the wit by then, at least, to steer clear of the topic of his wife. I didn’t make speeches to him about freedom, whatever that means, or the essential good will of the West: besides they were not favourable days for selling that story, and I was in no clear ideological state myself. I took the line of kinship. ‘Look,’ I said, ‘we’re getting to be old men, and we’ve spent our lives looking for the weaknesses in one another’s systems. I can see through Eastern values just as you can see through our Western ones. Both of us, I’m sure, have experienced ad nauseam the technical satisfactions of this wretched war. But now your own side is going to shoot you. Don’t you think it’s time to recognize that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?”

Guillam gazed at him, waiting for the resolution. “But what do you make out of it?” He demanded in a tone that suggested he had been cheated of the end. “Did Karla ever think of staying?”

“I’m sure it never crossed his mind,’”said Smiley with disgust. “I behaved like a soft fool. The very archetype of a flabby Western liberal. But I would rather be my kind of fool than his for all that. I am sure,” Smiley repeated vigorusly, “that neither my arguments nor his predicament at Moscow Centre would ultimately have swayed him in the least. I expect he spent the night working out how he would outgun Rudnev when he got home. Rudnev was shot a month later, incidentally. Karla got Rudnev’s job and set to work reactivating his old agents. Among them Gerald, no doubt. It’s odd to reflect that all the time he was looking at me, he could have been thinking of Gerald. I expect they’ve had a good laugh about it since. The episode had another result”, said Smiley. “Since his San Fransisco experience Karla had never once touched illegal radio. He cut it right out of his handwriting: Embassy links are a different matter. But in the field his agents aren’t allowed to go near it. And he still has Ann’s lighter.”


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