The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carre
The middle instalment of the ‘Karla Trilogy’ is very different from the two books that take place either side of it, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and Smiley’s People. In both of those the central character, George Smiley, is a retired outsider investigating the mistakes and betrayals of other men. In The Honourable Schoolboy, we get to see Smiley doing what he is supposedly best at, running an intelligence service. It means we get to see him operating on a grander scale: from a tiny office in London, he is directing operations as far away as Hong Kong and Vietnam. But it also means that this time, the mis-steps are his.
Smiley is not the operative here, but the mastermind directing events. That means he needs a stand-in to do the field work, the titular Honourable Schoolboy — and for that le Carre resurrects a character from the previous book, who seems here to have had something of an unaccounted character transformation. In Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy Jerry Westerby was a comic turn to alleviate the suspense as Smiley hunted down the mole in the Circus, a drunken upper class English buffoon with delusions of spying glory whose ego Smiley flatters in order to get information.
In The Honourable Schoolboy, Westerby is suddenly the real thing, a hardened intelligence operative who slips in and out of countries under the noses of passport officials, carries a gun, and hitches rides across war zones.
His sudden unexplained proficiency notwithstanding, it is Jerry Westerby who is the most arresting character in the book, not Smiley. In the early stages of the book, it’s Smiley who engrosses us, as he fights MI6’s corner against rival government departments, and tries to trace Karla’s operations with only a skeleton staff. But as the story progresses, Westerby increasingly steals the show.
He is, perhaps, le Carre’s most eloquent response to the James Bond style of spy. Like Bond, he is a hard-drinking womaniser, an effortless charmer. Like Bond, he is a dyed-in-the-wool field operative, uninterested in the machinations and schemes of headquarters in London. But Westerby has a degree of self-awareness Bond lacks, he knows that, for all the women, he cuts a rather sad, lonely figure. And he knows that, unlike Bond, he is not always on the side of good.
Le Carre is at his most skilful in slowly transferring the reader’s allegaince from Smiley to Westerby — no mean feat, after he had made Smiley so sympathetic a character in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Here, we see a different Smiley, a ruthless spymaster, prepared to risk and even sacrifice the innocent in pursuit of his greater cause. It is Westerby, by contrast, who becomes the unlikely conscience of the book. At its best moments, there is an almost Graham Greene-like quality to this, as Westerby goes on relentlessly with his mission, all the while aware of its effects on the people around him, as if he is powerless to prevent them.
There is a Greene-like quality, too, in the evocative descriptions of south-east Asia, particularly during sequences in war-torn Cambodia. Less successful are the depictions of hard-drinking journalists in Hong Kong, where the character Craw, in particular, grows wearisome with his heavily stylised private slang.
The greatest disappointment, though, was the ending — which I shan’t spoil, except to say that it didn’t quite come off for me. It was hard to see why Westerby made the choices he made at the end of the book, the more so because he had been so beautifully drawn up until then. Nevertheless a dazzling book, with all the pace of a spy thriller, but set in a real world where actions have consequences, not all of them pleasant, or even forgiveable.