George Smiley returns! To Sarratt, to speak forsoothingly of agents and ops past to the aspiring agents of the future. Told from the viewpoint of Ned, one of Smiley’s own agents in times past, this book is a series of vignettes of Ned’s cases, each introduced by a story from Smiley. It’s fun visiting with Smiley again, and there are plenty of on-screen appearances by le Carré’s Big Bad, Bill Hayden, but this book didn’t necessarily come fully together for me until the last page of the last chapter, when Ned on his last day on duty before retirement is sent down to give a come-to-Jesus speech to an arms dealer who doesn’t want to retire. Sir Anthony, the arms dealer, replies in part thusly
“I’m sorry,” he began, which was a lie to start with. “Did I understand you were appealing to my conscience? Good. Right. Make a statement for the record. Mind? Statement begins here. Point One. There is only one point actually. I don’t give a fart. The difference between me and other charlies is, I admit it. If a horde of niggers–yes, I said niggers, I meant niggers–if these niggers shot each other dead with my toys tomorrow and I made a bob out of it, great news by me. Because if I don’t sell ’em the goods, some other charlies will…I’m Pharaoh, right? If a few thousand slaves have to die so that I can build this pyramid, nature.”
And poor, shell-shocked Ned can only think
…the evil that stood before me now was a wrecking infant in our own midst, and I became an infant in return, disarmed, speechless and betrayed. For a moment, it was as if my whole life had been fought against the wrong enemy…I thought of telling him that now we had defeated Communism, we were going to have to set about defeating capitalism, but that wasn’t really my point: the evil was not in the system, but in the man.
le Carré published this book in 1990, twenty-six years before the election of 2016. I don’t know if I’m more awed or more depressed by his prescience.