No writer has been more highly praised for spy fiction set in the Cold War than John le Carre, who died on December 12 at the age of 89.
The Karla trilogy pitting British spymaster George Smiley against his Soviet counterpart Karla were mammoth bestsellers, made into a movie (Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy) and two BBC TV series (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People).
I dipped into Smiley’s People, published in 1979, the concluding volume of the Karla trilogy which began with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) and included The Honourable Schoolboy (1977). I was blown away by the ending.
Le Carre fans will recall what a tangled web the writer weaves. The covert war between Western and Soviet spies involves all kinds of skulduggery.. One can’t trust even one’s own side. Bill Haydon, Smiley’s wife Ann’s lover, turns out to be a double agent.
Smiley eventually gets the better of Karla in Smiley’s People. He discovers that Karla has been embezzling Soviet funds to pay for his troubled daughter’s stay in an institution run by nuns in Switzerland. Smiley threatens Karla that his misuse of funds will be reported to Moscow unless he defects to the West.
Smiley had tried to persuade Karla to defect earlier, too, when the Russian spymaster was in a Delhi jail. But he had not been successful then. Karla had simply pocketed Smiley’s cigarette lighter — a gift from his wife Ann — when Smiley had offered him cigarettes and the lighter to make him speak.
In Smiley’s People, however, Karla does defect to the West when Smiley threatens to divulge his misappropriation of funds to Moscow.
Karla slips out of East Berlin to West Berlin. Smiley watches him come over. Crossing the border dressed as a workman, Karla flings the cigarette lighter he had taken from Smiley in the Delhi jail to the ground near Smiley’s feet, but Smiley doesn’t pick it up.
Karla’s escape from East Berlin to West Berlin is described in great detail in the last chapter of Smiley’s People.
The writing is vivid, cinematic. The chapter begins with Smiley and his lieutenant Peter Guillam waiting for Karla to cross the border. It describes other members of Smiley’s team moving into position and Karla’s eventual defection. He crosses the border and is spirited away by Smiley’s people. But Smiley lingers on the scene till Guillam persuades him, too, to get into a car so they can drive away,
This is how le Carre describes the event, beginning with Smiley’s lieutenant Peter Guillam’s memories of earlier times in Berlin as he waits with Smiley followed by Smiley’s own reactions as he watches Karla come over from East Berlin:
He had known Berlin when it was the world capital of the Cold War, when every crossing from East to West had the tenseness of a major surgical operation, He remembered how on nights like these, clusters of Berlin policemen and Allied soldiers used to gather under the arc lights, stamping their feet, cursing the cold, fidgeting their rifles from shoulder to shoulder, puffing clouds of frosted breath into each other’s faces. He remembered how the tanks waited, growling to keep their engines warm, their gun barrels picking targets on the other side, feigning strength. He remembered the sudden wail of the alarm klaxons and the dash to the Bernauerstrasse or wherever the latest escape attempt might be. He remembered the fire brigade ladders going up; the orders to shoot back; the orders not to; the dead, some of them agents. But after tonight, he knew that he would remember it only like this; so dark you wanted to take a torch with you into the street, so still you could have heard the cocking of a rifle from across the river…
Smiley sat opposite him across the little plastic table, a cup of cold coffee at his elbow. He looked somehow very small inside his overcoat.,,
The cafe was in the Turkish quarter because the Turks are now the poor whites of West Berlin and property is worst and cheapest near the Wall. Smiley and Guillam were the only foreigners…
Guillam returned his gaze to the window, and the bridge. First came the piers of the overhead railway, next the old brick house… Then came the white halo of sodium arc lights, and behind it lay a barricade, a pillbox, then the bridge. The bridge was for pedestrians only, and the only way over it was a corridor of steel fencing like a bird walk, sometimes one man’s width and sometimes three. Occasionally one crossed, keeping a meek appearance and a steady pace in order not to alarm the sentry tower, then stepping into the sodium halo as he reached the West. By daylight the bird walk was grey; by night for some reason yellow, and strangely light. The pillbox was a yard or two inside the border, its roof just mastering the barricade, but it was the tower that dominated everything, one iron-black rectangular pillar at the bridge’s centre. Even the snow avoided it. There was snow on the concrete teeth that blocked the bridge to traffic, snow that swarmed round the halo and the pillbox and made a show of settling on the web cobble; but the sentry tower was immune, as if not even the snow would go near of its own free will…
The time was ten-thirty but it could have been three in the morning, because along its borders, West Berlin goes to bed with the dar. Inland, the island-city may chat and drink and whore and spend its money; the Sony signs and result churches and conference halls may glitter like a fair-ground; but the dark shores of the borderland are silent from seven in the evening…
Guillam stood but a few feet behind him, yet Guillam could have been back in Paris for all the awareness Smiley had of him: he had seen the solitary black figure start his journey; he had seen the glimmer of the cigarette-end as he took one last pull, the spark of it comet towards the water as he tossed it over the iron fencing oft the bird walk. One small man, in a worker’s half-length coat, with a worker’s satchel slung across his little chest, walking neither fast nor slowly, but walking like a man who walked a lot. One small man, his body a fraction too long for his legs, hatless despite the snow.
Approaching the blackness of the sentry tower, Karla took a couple shorter steps and for a moment Smiley really thought he might change his mind and give himself up to the East Germans. Then he saw a cat’s tongue of flame as Karla lit a fresh cigarette. With a match or a lighter? he wondered…
“Christ, he’s cool!” said Guillam.
The little figure set off again, but at a slower pace, as if he had grown weary. He is stoking up his courage for the last step, thought Smiley, or he is trying to damp his courage down…
They had started walking along the tow-path, Guillam leading, Smiley reluctantly following. The halo burned ahead of them, growing as they approached it. Like two ordinary pedestrians, Toby had said. Just walk to the bridge and wait. It’s normal. Smiley heard whispered voices and the swift, damped sounds of hasty movement under tension. “George,” someone whispered. “George”. From a yellow shoe box, an unknown figure lifted a hand in discreet salute, and he heard the word “triumph” smuggled to him on the wet freezing air.The snow was blurring his glasses, he found it hard to see. The observation post stood to their right, not a light burning in the windows. He made out a van parked at the entrance, and realised it was a Berlin mail van,, one of Toby’s favourites. Guillam was hanging back Smiley heard something about “claiming the prize”.
They had reached the edge of the halo. An orange rampart blocked the bridge and the chicane from sight. They were out of the eye-line of the sentry-box. Toby Esterhase was standing on the observation scaffold with a pair of binoculars, calmly playing the Cold War tourist. A plump female watcher stood at his side. An old notice warned them they were there at their own risk. On the smashed brick viaduct behind them Smiley ouched out a forgotten armorial crest. Toby made a tiny motion with his hand: thumbs up, it’s our man now. ..
Guillam had drawn alongside him and seemed to be trying to edge him forward. He heard son footsteps as Toby’s watchers one by one gathered to the edge of the halo, safe from view in the shelter of the rampart, waiting with bated breath for a sight of the catch. And suddenly, there he stood, like a man slipping into a crowded hall unnoticed. His small right hand hung flat and naked at his side, his left held the cigarette timidly across his chest. One little man, hatless, with a satchel. He took a step forward and in the halo Smiley saw his face, aged and weary and travelled, the short hair turned to white by a sprinkling of snow. He wore a grimy shirt and a black tie; he looked like a poor man going to the funeral of a friend. The cold had nipped his cheeks low down, adding to his age.
They faced each other; they were perhaps a yard apart, much as they had been in Delhi jail. Smiley heard more footsteps… Paul Skordeno slipped forward and stood himself on one side of Karla; Nick de Silsky stood the other. He heard Guillam telling someone to get that bloody car up here before they come over the bridge and get him back. He heard the ring of something metal falling on to the icy cobble, and knew it was Ann’s cigarette-lighter, but nobody else seemed to notice it. They exchanged one more glance and perhaps each for that second did see in the other something of himself. He heard the crackle of car tyres and the sounds of doors opening, while the engine kept running. De Silsky and Skordeno moved towards it and Karla went with them, though they didn’t touch him; he seemed to have acquired already the submissive manner of a prisoner; he had learned it in a hard school. Smiley stood back and the three of them marched slowly past him, all somehow too absorbed by the ceremony to pay attention to him. The halo was empty. He heard the quiet closing of the car’s doors and the sound of it driving away. He heard two other cards leave after it, or with it. He didn’t watch them go. He felt Tony Esterhase fling his arms round his shoulders, and saw that his eyes were filled with tears,
“George,” he began. “All your life. Fantastic!”
Then something in Smiley’s stiffness made Toby pull away, and Smiley himself stepped quickly out of the halo, passing very close to Ann’s lighter on his way. It lay on the halo’s very edge, tilted slightly, glinting like fool’s gold on the cobble. He thought of picking it up, but somehow there seemed no point and no one else appeared to have seen it. Someone was shaking his hand, someone else was clapping him on the shoulder. Toby quietly restrained them.
“Take care, George,” Toby said. “Go well, hear me?:
Smiley heard Toby’s team leave by one until only Peter Guillam remained. Walking a short way back along the embankment, almost to where the cross stood, Smiley took another look at the bridge, as if to establish whether anything had changed, but clearly it had not, and although the wind appeared a little stronger, the snow was still swirling in all directions.
Peter Guillam touched his arm.
“Come on, old friend,” he said. “It’s bedtime.”
From long habit, Smiley had taken off his spectacles and was absently polishing them on the fat end of his tie, even though he had to delve for it in the folds of his tweed coat.
“George, you won,” said Guillam as they walked slowly towards the car.
“Did I?” said Smiley. “Yes. Yes, well, I suppose I did.”