A review of The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre

Reviewed by P.P.O. Kane

The Honourable Schoolboy
By John le Carre
2011, ISBN: 9780143119739

This novel, originally published in 1977, is the second in the so-called Karla trilogy and follows on from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. The mole, Bill Haydon, has been rooted out and George Smiley now sits in Control’s chair, ensconced at the head of the Circus. His immediate task is to appraise the damage done by Bill Haydon and to limit it. And, besides this, to use Haydon’s fingerprint – the evidence of his snooping and betrayals – to glean some insight into Moscow Centre’s blindspots and weaknesses. They call it ‘taking back-bearings’ here. In essence, it is the kind of logic you need when solving retroactive chess problems, of the kind to be found in Raymond Smullyan’s books.

In his quest Smiley is joined by Peter Guillam (here chasing a certain Miss Molly Meakin, and so not at all gay – and she has designs of her own on him, for which refer to the end of chapter 8 – contra the character of Peter Guillam in the film of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy), Connie Sachs (a redoubtable soul and an expert on Russian affairs) and others. At centre stage is Jerry Westerby who is sent East – to Hong Kong, Cambodia and Vietnam- under the cover of being a foreign correspondent.

Let me come clean and admit that I didn’t quite follow the plot; indeed, in places I found it quite perplexing. But I read on because I was held by le Carre’s world, precarious and peril-ridden. He writes at one point that ‘silence, not gunfire, was the natural element of the approaching enemy’ and he uses this element too. Everything is imbued with an anxious, disconcerting silence – the sound of a nuclear holocaust that is perpetually threatened and has been momentarily averted. The story may bewilder, ultimately, but at every treacherous step of the way the story-telling holds one’s attention. It is immediate, even though this is now an historical novel as much as it is a novel about spying or espionage. Our most pressing dangers derive from terrorist organisations, not nation states, although snowyRussia – as the Litvinenko case made plain – is still playing some unsavoury tricks on the world stage. Old habits die hard.

Le Carre’s characterisation of George Smiley conveys the impression of a man who is a mystery to others – unknown and unknowable – while giving the reader a real sense of knowing him. A difficult even paradoxical thing to pull off, but le Carre achieves it. He is described as ‘a failed priest’, perhaps in homage to Greene’s character in The Power and the Glory. Smiley believes that he needs to be ‘inhuman in defence of our humanity’ but, unlike the aforementioned whiskey priest, his faith is in ‘the West’, democracy, the pigs’ bladders on a stick that sometimes pass for politicians and statesmen.

It is a fine novel, as much romance and redemption song as thriller, and one of several books by John le Carre that have been reissued by Penguin during 2011.

About the reviewer: P.P.O. Kane lives and works in Manchester, England. He welcomes responses to his reviews and you can reach him at ludic@europe.com