In his 2012 introduction to the fiftieth anniversary edition of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, John le Carré asks the question that informs every one of his novels: “How far can we go in the rightful defense of our Western values without abandoning them along the way?” Assuming that “Western values” do not include the ends justifying the most cynical, even murderous means—a great assumption to be sure—the denouement of that novel is a shocking demonstration of a cold-blooded breach of faith. The novel, the third in which George Smiley appears, shows him for the first time sacrificing what might be considered a sense of personal honor and humanity to further the interests of a greater cause. His role in the plot that deceives and dooms British agent Alec Leamas and the innocent Liz Gold is small, but pivotal. When asked by the hoodwinked Leamas whether Smiley knows what’s afoot, Circus’s chief, Control, admits that that Smiley finds the scheme “distasteful,” but, he explains: “It isn’t a matter of morality. He is like the surgeon who has grown tired of blood. He is content that others should operate.”
We don’t like to think of the soul-tormented Smiley as Pontius Pilate; it comes too close to lumping him with the trimmers and temporizers in the Circus (the U.K.’s CIA) whom he despises. It would seem that le Carré didn’t want this verdict to stand—it belongs to the ruthless Control in any case. He developed the spymaster into a far more complicated character: a man who, in his feelings and deeds, represents the problem of English decency confronting ugly reality. Smiley’s muted reactions, his taciturnity and blandly ironical observations, are sometimes a response to the toll that the necessarily duplicitous business of spy craft takes on conscience and honor, but just as often that bland lack of affect is his refusal to be made party to his darkling trade serving as a cloak for the careerism, buck-passing, and servility of which Circus bureaucrats and politicians are such adept practitioners.
Smiley’s next appearance came in The Looking Glass War, where, though we find him urging a rival British spy outfit to abandon one of their agents in East Germany, he cannot be said to be washing his hands of the man’s certain death. He was not responsible for the jealous, self-regarding folly that had put an incompetent operator in this situation, and there is, in fact, no realistic way of getting him out. In the end, there is a poltroonish cover-up and the novel as a whole is a masterly study in lethal delusion—another of le Carré’s continuing themes.
The following three Smiley novels, which make up the brilliant “Karla Trilogy,” provide the fullest view of the Smiley predicament, of the man who is alert to every nuance of honor and decency feeling sullied by the dirty game he plays so well. (If you haven’t read these novels and intend to, you had better bail out right now—spoilers ahead.) In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, Smiley cannot feel thoroughly triumphant in successfully unmasking Bill Haydon as the mole in the Circus, for it could be seen as his taking revenge on the man who had cuckolded him. As it happens, Haydon had done so precisely because he believed that Smiley was a man so fastidious about motive that he would balk at pursuing another for even the appearance of a personal reason. In the following two volumes, Smiley is disenchanted by both his victories. The Honourable Schoolboy ends in the capture of Karla’s agent Nelson Ko, but also in the death by American gunfire of freelance Circus operative, Jerry Westerby, and the Circus itself becoming the CIA’s poodle. Finally, in Smiley’s People, Smiley vanquishes his nemesis, Karla, turning him into a double agent; but it is a sickening victory, having been effected by threats to the man’s mentally disturbed daughter.