Friday, May 4, 2012

John Le Carré: The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)

The old BBC adaptations of these books skipped this volume, and it sounds like the new film series will too.  I guess I can see why, if you see the project as a star turn for Smiley/Alec Guinness/Gary Oldman.  Smiley's certainly a major character in this book, but he doesn't dominate it like he does the first and third books of this not-really-a-trilogy.  Here he divides our attention with a field agent, Jerry Westerby.  Who's almost as interesting a character in his own right - Le Carré's people are just as compelling here as they were in Tinker, Tailor.

But really Westerby is just a vehicle, a set of eyes, to get us, the reader, into the field.  The first and third books are mostly armchair spycraft - almost all the work takes place in Smiley's head.  Here we're thrust out into the world.  A world that's falling apart:  Southeast Asia in the wake of the US debacle there.

That's the overriding impression this book leaves with me.  Actually most of the field agenting parts of the book take place in Hong Kong, which gets echoes of the war but not much else, but it's the tour of Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand in the last third of the book that really sticks with you.  We don't actually see many Americans - they're conspicuously absent, busy getting airlifted out of embassies.  Nor do we really see much of the actual killing fields.  We get a lot of bombs, random bullets, junkies, casual corruption, and violence just around the next bend.  In other words Le Carré is giving us the feeling of touring a war zone, rather than fighting in it.  That's scary enough, and allows us to preserve something of the journalist's objectivity (back when there might have been such a thing).  No room for obfuscation:  look at what the US did.  Look at the world we made.

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