Art Kavanagh

Criticism, fiction and other writing

“A preferable technique to bribery”: The nature of coercion in Smiley’s People

In an issue of my newsletter earlier this year, I noted that reading Smiley’s People in the early 1980s put me off John le Carré’s novels for several decades, though I’d previously been a fan. I thought that what had repelled me had been Smiley’s reliance, in finally getting the upper hand over his archrival, Karla, not on his famed intellectual brilliance, but on the blunt instrument of coercion. To compel Karla to defect, Smiley exploits the Russian’s commitment to protecting his daughter, a mentally ill and very vulnerable young woman.

The authorial voice tells us that no copy of Smiley’s decisive letter to Karla was kept, but it’s able to describe what the letter says, since “there can be little doubt of the substance” (p. 413). Smiley “would have pointed out” that if Karla were to be liquidated by his resentful rivals in Moscow Centre:

… his daughter’s future in the West — where she was residing under false pretences — would be uncertain, to say the least. There would be no money for her, and Alexandra would become a perpetual and ailing exile, ferried from one public hospital to another, without friends, proper papers, or a penny to her name. At worst, she would be brought back to Russia, to have visited upon her the full wrath of her father’s enemies. (p. 413)

This is the pressure to which Karla unsurprisingly succumbs.

A few days after I had sent that newsletter email, it struck me for the first time that my discomfort with Smiley’s People had little to do with Smiley’s reliance on arm-twisting in preference to ratiocination, on (metaphorical) brawn rather than brain. After all, it is rational to use brute force tactics when they have the best chance of succeeding in the circumstances, and highly irrational to eschew them merely because they’re not “clever” or subtle.

No, if the novel left a sour taste in my mouth, it was less because of Smiley’s slicing through the Gordian knot than because of the kind of coercion he used, and the particular targets against whom it was directed. It’s clearly significant — even if the significance is not immediately obvious — that just before Smiley goes to Switzerland to begin his active operation against Karla, he visits his estranged wife, Ann, to make a final break with her. Saul Enderby demands in exasperation why Smiley is pursuing this distraction: “Hasn’t he got enough problems, taking on Karla single-handed?” (p. 322).

He has, of course: that’s why he feels it necessary to clear the Ann problem out of the way before giving his full attention to the Karla one. In Smiley’s mind, Karla and Ann have become closely associated, to the point where it is difficult for him to disentangle them. It was Karla of course who told Bill Haydon, the Circus mole, to begin an affair with Ann, so as to throw Smiley off his stroke and cloud his perception of Haydon. Karla had kept Smiley’s cigarette lighter, the one given to him by Ann as a gift and inscribed with all her love. Smiley’s conflicting feelings towards this circumstance are brilliantly caught in his parting remark to Enderby:

“It was just an ordinary Ronson,” Smiley said. “Still, they’re made to last, aren’t they?” (p. 315)

Not rare or valuable, but durable, and still there, so many years later. In the end it is simply discarded: it seems that neither of the rivals has any further use for it.

I’m suggesting that Smiley makes the decisive rupture with Ann before he heads off to do battle against the Russian ogre because he feels that otherwise, in coercing Karla, he’d equally be coercing Ann by proxy. I’d also like to suggest that the measure he takes to prevent this from happening is at best partly effective.

And, though le Carré doesn’t make this explicit, I believe that we have to consider the possibility that Smiley’s unease at the tactics he’s employing against Karla arises in large part from guilt at his enjoyment of having found a way to strongarm this stand-in for Ann. It’s hard to explain otherwise.

Twice in the novel mention is made of the feminine quality of Karla’s codename. Enderby reads from the statement of Kirov, the unfortunate embassy official who was used by Karla in his search for a “legend” for his daughter, and whom Otto Leipzig then happily “burned”:

“‘… I made the acquaintance of the head of the independent Thirteenth Intelligence Directorate, subordinated to the Party’s Central Committee, who is known throughout Centre only by his workname Karla. This is a woman’s name and is said to belong to the first network he controlled.’ That right, George?” (p. 299)

In a much later book, A Legacy of Spies (2017), Jim Prideaux tells Peter Guillam what eventually became of Karla:

“First, old George persuades Karla to come over to the West. Finds his weak spot, works on it, credit to him. Debriefs the fellow. Gets him a name and a job in South America. Teaching Russian studies to Latinos. Resettles him. Nothing too much trouble. Year later the bloody man shoots himself and breaks George’s heart …” (Chapter 13)

Why should Smiley be solicitous of the welfare of a ruthless director of murders, someone who had ordered the elimination (among many others) of Smiley’s own agents, such as the Estonian General Vladimir? On whose orders Otto Leipzig had been tortured and killed, and who had callously allowed Ostrakova to believe that she was about to be reunited with her daughter? It’s almost as if, by inducing Karla to defect, Smiley had assumed responsibilities towards him. But didn’t Karla show every appearance of being able to look after himself? Prideaux comments:

“… Always George’s problem, seeing both sides of everything. Wore him out. (Chapter 13)

Or maybe he still hadn’t quite managed finally to distinguish his old enemy from Ann.

When le Carré died at the end of 2020, several commentaries (like this one) suggested that the great theme of his fiction was betrayal. Most of us encounter betrayal at various times, but we’re more likely to do so in our personal — including romantic and sexual as well as work — relations than in clandestine intelligence gathering or international politics.

Perhaps the root of le Carré’s appeal as a novelist is that he blends together the near-universal experience of having been betrayed with the high stakes of international intrigue. I’m inclined to think that, in Smiley’s People, the blend isn’t complete and the two strands have begun to separate.

For a while, I thought that my initial distaste for the novel must be an overreaction. Yes, Smiley had adopted Karla’s brutal methods and turned them back against their originator, but what — apart from the fact that he used the welfare of a vulnerable young woman as a bargaining chip — was so wrong with that? It’s only since I wrote about the book in my newsletter recently that I’ve come to see that Karla might not be the only target in Smiley’s sights, and that he has contemplated, and maybe even entertained a fantasy about, using similar methods against his wife.

Posted by Art on 24-Jun-2022.