Archive | December, 2010

Nameless Men and Invisible Women

5 Dec

Having finished Smiley’s People, I am left with pages of notes. I could write a whole entry, for instance, on the charming consistency of Toby Esterhase and how, despite that, he really comes into his own in this novel. What struck me most of all, however, were the constant naming and namelessness motifs.

More than any previous novel, Smiley’s People concerns itself with questions of identity in general and naming in particular. It begins with Madame Ostrakova in Paris, approached by a mysterious Russian who attempts to pass off a strange young woman as her long-lost daughter, abandoned in Moscow and now wishing to join her in Paris. This sets off a chain of deaths, suspicions, and reunions. Smiley gathers his people (clarifying, along the way, what we always suspected, that among those who have helped him in the past there are two distinct camps: those who are to be trusted absolutely and those who were only ever in it for themselves), and gathers the facts, which are few and far between and difficult to nail down due, in part, to the system of names both Moscow Center and the Circus rely on. Le Carré is quick to point out, here, Smiley’s own assumed names. Where in previous novels “Mr. Standfast” and “Mr. Barraclough” were aliases thrown about for added authenticity, here they become an additional part of an already complex story. Smiley’s name when dealing with one specific group of informants is “Max,” a first name of one syllable. It gives away nothing, not even its national origins, and it imposes a level of familiarity in the one addressing him that cannot ever really exist.

In Le Carré’s books, aliases have not always come invested with such human character. It was not a set of cover names Jim Prideaux memorized and carried with him to Czechoslovakia in Tinker, Tailor, but a laundry list of professions, part of a nursery rhyme: tinker, tailor, soldier, poor man, beggar man. Bill Roach and his classmates call Prideaux “Rhino” because it best describes him, but no one would ever believe for one moment that this is his name. Of Karla, in the closing pages of Smiley’s People, Smiley realizes, “he had no real name by which to address his enemy: only a code-name, and a woman’s at that. Even his military rank was a mystery.” If it was this anonymity that gave Karla the upper hand for so long, it surely also led to his downfall. Karla knows everything about Smiley; there is nothing left to unveil and destroy.

It is through peeling back layers of names and false names that Smiley is finally able to reach Karla. Meeting Karla’s daughter, the so-called Alexandra Ostrakova (real name: Tatiana, last name lost to the ages) in Bern, Smiley reaches the climax of the novel, and of his professional career. Sitting across from her, himself under an assumed name, he recognizes that Karla’s weaknesses are purely human. Names are irrelevant; human beings are predictable. What previously existed outside the world of the nameable is here, in Smiley’s People, dealt with once and for all. Ann Smiley’s place in her husband’s life is finally categorized; where before she existed in a strange gray area of marriage–not quite in it, not quite out of it–here she is dispatched once and for all, dumped with as much directness as Smiley could ever muster with her. (Significantly, this is also the first time Ann has appeared in the flesh in the “present day,” as the story conceives of it.) In order to reach Karla, Smiley sits down and, very directly, very ordinarily, writes him a letter. He does not address him by his real name–he does not know it, but he knows that he is appealing to real emotions. Defect to the West, he says, and we will not ruin your daughter’s life.

“[Tatiana’s story] is a complicated story, full of contrasts, full of gaps. If it is not the cause of her malady, it is certainly, let us say, the framework,” one of the nuns at the mental institution tells Smiley. In the works of Le Carré, as in many other texts and certainly many other spy stories, characters read each other like books, trying to make sense of their lives and their place in the grand scheme of things. An untitled book lacks that initial clue, that brief context with which to engage with those first few daunting words. A nameless person is the same.