November 26th, 2011


Books 122-123: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Finkler Question

Book 122: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.
Author: John le Carre, 1974.
Genre: Spy Fiction. Thriller. Cold War.
Other Details: Paperback. 432 pages.

Mr George Smiley is small, podgy, and at best, middle-aged. He is disillusioned, wrestles with idleness, and has been deserted by his beautiful wife. He is also a senior British intelligence officer, who has recently been forcibly retired when his mentor, Control, fell from grace. Before his final illness Control had been convinced that Moscow had planted a Soviet 'mole' at the "Circus", the highest echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service. In the dead of night, a senior Cabinet member offers Smiley the resources to 'do what ever is necessary' to uncover the mole. So begins a game of long and bitter battle of wits between Smiley and the enigmatic Karla, his Moscow adversary.

This is the first in Le Carre's celebrated Karla Trilogy, which became an iconic BBC series starring Alec Guinness. This novel was selected for one of my reading groups as we also planned to see the 2011 film adaptation. I had read this and many more of Le Carre's novels years ago so while I knew the general plot I was able to appreciate it all over again. Much of the background is supplied through a series of flashbacks, which is very much le Carre's signature style and as such the text requires close attention. This is a very detailed novel that builds slowly and very differently to the all-action James Bond type of thriller. It chronicles the back room dealings of the suited grey men of the Intelligence Service during the height of the Cold War, though their machinations do have deadly consequences for those 'in the field'.

Written and set in the early 1970s, and inspired by le Carre's own experiences as an intelligence officer in the 1960s and his interaction with the infamous group of double agents known as the Cambridge Five. This is an amazing piece of fiction, which I could not put down despite its length and density. I plan to revisit the rest of the Karla Trilogy in the New Year.

Book 123: The Finkler Question.
Author: Howard Jacobson, 2010.
Genre: Contemporary. Comedy-Drama. Satire.
Other Details: Audiobook. Unabridged; Length: 12 hours, 37 mins Read by Steven Crossley.

I had read this in September 2010 as part of a Man Booker Library Reading Group. We voted it as our winner and it did indeed go on to win the Prize. As it was selected for my library reading group this month I revisited it via its audio edition. For those wishing a summary of the plot, it can be read on my original 2010 review.

Again, I was struck that this is a very mature work, full of wisdom, wit and pathos. This time round I was even more aware of its focus upon Jewish history and identity and its examination of the historical and political aspects linked to the foundation of Israel and anti-Semitism through interaction and debates between various characters.

It also provides a great deal to meditate on upon individual cultural roots and identity especially in respect of the character of Treslove. It brought to mind my own mild envy towards my former husband and his family, who while liberal Jews had a strong sense of cultural identity. At the time I felt rather displaced and had done so as long as I could remember often teasing that it was because my parents had 'kidnapped' me and my brother as young children and brought us to the New World. Yet there was some truth in that running joke as we had been too young to have a voice in the decision. That longing proved a factor that led me to return to live in England a few years later.

It is a very wordy book and given that I knew the overall plot, its audio version proved a useful way to refresh and deepen my appreciation. Steven Crossley is one of my favourite narrators and his rich voice was perfect for this novel.