Thursday, May 04, 2006

Schoolboy errors

Knowing that it was the first of a trilogy (about the hunt for Jean-Luc Picard), I read Tinker, Tailor looking for people we'd see again. What with the name of the next book in the series, I'd rather assumed that the schoolboy in question would be the, er, schoolboy. The one whose parents are divorcing, and who becomes a watcher for Jim Prideaux.

Somewhat to my surprise, it's some old boy hack at the heat of book 2. Jerry Westerby is one of the well-oiled fellows Smiley has tea with when trying to rat out his mole. (If that's an expression.) He talks to Smiley in Red Indian (lots of "How!" and "Big um Chief!" stuff), and has a drinking habit that's the pride of Fleet Street.

The wheeze of The Honourable Schoolboy is that George Smiley - having ratted said mole in the top secret service shambles called the Circus - now has to get the Circus back on its feet. It's not helped that the international spying community think the Circus a bit rubbish at the moment. But that's because it's what Smiley's been telling them...

A clue leads them to suspect that a Hong Kong millionairre, Drake Ko OBE, is up to naughties, so they send the pissed old hack Westerby out to interview him and scratch around for more clues. Trouble is, Drake Ko has a pretty young girlfriend, and Westerby is not immune...

The exotic Hong Kong (and wider Far Eastern) setting explains why this middle book didn't get adapted by the BBC. It's a very broad canvas - a movie, rather than six episodes of people having meals in service stations and bedsits. "Drake Ko" is a comedy name right out of James Bond (It sounds like "Draco"... do you see?) And there's heavy doses of the sex, cynicism and sadism you expect in spy stories.

It's also hard to like any of the brutal, cold fish working in the Circus, nor the oilly civil servants politicking around them, nor the rowdy ex-pats and their parties.

Yet the book is hugely absorbing as le Carre (and his agents) unpick the details of Drake Ko's life, and of the history of the region. Imperialism - British, American, Russian and Chinese - is as much a villain as D. Ko. At one point, Westerby's on a US military base just as the war in Vietnam is declared over.
"The windows overlooking the airfield were smoked and double glazed. On the runway, aircraft landed and took off without making a sound. This is how they tried to win, Jerry thought: from inside soundproof rooms, through smoked glass, using machines at arm's length. This is how they lost."

John le Carre, The Honourable Schoolboy, p. 437.

We're never in any doubt that Smiley detests what the job requires of him, and the terrible cost on all those involved, yet on he presses anyway.

Westerby, for all he's a bit of a pickle, cares enough about the people whose lives are being mucked about to do something about it. As a result, he has far more old-school nobility than anyone he's working for, and for all he's made a hash of his life, for all he's barrelling towards hashing it once and for all, he's a sympathetic and engaging character, and one we're rooting for all the way.

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