Out of the Past: The Many Returns of George Smiley

8 Oct

So far in my re-reading of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy I have yet to come up with definitive answers to the question of continuity and chronology in the life of George Smiley as it spans Le Carré’s novels. A casual Google search yielded a few fans’ approximations of possible timelines, all of which failed to answer my biggest question: is it really possible that George Smiley is brought out of retirement in every book in which he is featured? This occurs most famously in Tinker, Tailor, but no less significantly in Call for the Dead or Smiley’s People.

Setting aside the question of realism, Smiley’s constant re-returning provides him with one of his best qualities; he is a constant outsider, relying on only a very few contacts within the world of the Circus for his information. We only learn of his life prior to retirement through flashbacks and the occasional moment of insight, when we can see what must have made him so good at his job.

Bill Haydon, the Philbean mole, had style and substance, but it is misdirected. He is also up to his ears in the Circus, as are many more trustworthy people who fall under suspicion for precisely this reason. Smiley stands apart and is all the more able to step in and identify the weaknesses in the service. Le Carré’s chronology, then, messy or not, intentional or not, serves a purpose.

Smiley is included in the list of those suspected of being a Soviet mole. He is given a code name, Beggar Man. Despite all this, he is never really suspected. Smiley is the first one Control asks to see when Jim Prideaux’s Czech mission goes south, he is the one Peter Guillam gets in touch with when Ricki Tarr emerges from hiding with information about a mole in the Circus, and, most tellingly, he is the one the crippled Prideaux, whose life has been quite possibly ruined as a result of the mole’s treachery, and who, even as he was sent on his mission to get the name, thought of the entire “rotten apple theory” as “damn silly,” as “poppycock,” is able to trust enough to tell him the whole, sad story.

Smiley’s outsider status serves another function, this time outside the narrative. He is the character to whom things must be explained. He provides a window into the story for the reader, allowing exposition to be unpacked with a maximum of subtlety. His reactions to new information signpost the way through the text, signalling to Le Carré’s audience what is key and what is filler.

Take, for instance, Ricki Tarr’s arrival on the scene at Lacon’s house. A first-time reader would not be aware of the pivotal role this scene plays, and without Smiley’s signals could possibly go on in ignorance for a couple more chapters until they were hopelessly lost. As it is, Tarr’s handshake and tone of voice indicate to Smiley that something has happened.

Yes, with Ricki Tarr it could have happened. With Tarr, anything could have happened. My God, he thought; two hours ago I was telling myself I would take refuge in the past. He felt thirsty, and supposed it was fear.

In Le Carré’s work, it is the past from which trouble invariably emerges, with Smiley tagging along, unwilling and canny, cleaning his glasses.

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