Saturday, September 08, 2012

A Literary Reference : Smiley's People / The Russia House

"Why was he so worried?" Smiley asked.

"Vladi owed him money, that was why. Fifty quid. Probably lost it on a horse together, one of their many losers. he'd promised to bring it roung to Mikhel's place and have a game of chess with him. In the middle of the night, mark you. They're insomniacs apparently, as well as patriots. Our leader hadn't shown up. Drama. 'Why the hell should William know where he is?' I ask him. 'Go to sleep.' An hour later who's back on the line? Breathing as before? Our Major Mikhel once more, hero of the Royal Estonian Cavalry, clicking our heels and apologizing. He's been round to Vladi's pad, banged on the door, rung the bell. There's nobody at home. 'Look, Mikhel,' I said, 'he's not her, we're not hiding him in the attic, we haven't seen him since Beckie's christening, we haven't heard from him. Right? William's just in from Hamburg, he needs sleep, and I'm not waking him.'"


"Hullo, Villem," Smiley said.

"William," Stella corrected him.

Villem nodded tautly, acknowledging both forms.

"Hullo, Max," said Villem. On his lap, his hands found and held each another. "How you doing, Max? That's the way, huh?"

"I gather you've already heard the news about Vladimir," Smiley said.

"News? What news, please?"

Smiley took his time. Watching him, sensing his stress.

"That he's disappeared," Smiley replied quite lightly, at last. "I gather his friends have been ringing you up at unsocial hours."

"Friends?" Villem shot a dependent glance at Stella. "Old emigrés, drink tea, play chess all day, politics? Talk crazy dreams? Mikhel is not my friend, Max."


He was dapper, and hollow-backed, and trim as the ex-major of horse he professed to be. His brown eyes, reddened by the night watch, had a becoming droopiness. He wore a black blazer over his shoulders like a cloak and black boots much polished which could indeed have been for riding. His grey hair was groomed with military correctness, his moustache thick but carefully clipped. His face was at first glance youthful and only a close look at the crumbling of its pale surface into countless tiny deltas revealed his years. Smiley followed him to the library. It ran the width of the house and was divided into alcoves into vanished countries - Latvia, Lithuania and not least Estonia - and in each alcove were a table and a flag and at several tables there were chess sets laid out for play, but nobody was playing, nobody was reading either; nobody was there, except for one blond, broad woman in her forties wearing a short skirt and ankle socks. Her yellow hair, dark at the roots, was knotted in a severe bun, and she lounged beside a samovar reading a travel magazine showing birch forests in the autumn. Drawing level with her, Mikhel paused and seemed about to make an introduction, but at the sight of Smiley, her glance flared with an intense and unmistakable anger. She looked at him, her mouth curled in contempt, she looked away through the rain-smeared window. Her cheeks were shiny from weeping and there were olive bruises under her heavy-lidded eyes.


"May I ask you something, Mikhel?" Smiley said, selecting a line that was oblique to the main thrust of his enquiry.


"That evening when he called here to borrow money from you, did he stay? Did you make him tea? Play a game of chess perhaps? Could you paint it for me a little, please, that evening?"

"We played chess, but not with concentration. He was preoccupied, Max."


They were interrupted by a clank of crockery as Elvira at the other end of the room went clumsily back to her chores. Daring to glance at Mikhel just then, Smiley saw him staring after her with an expression he recognized but for a split second could not place: hopeless and affectionate at once, torn between dependence and disgust. Till, with sickening empathy Smiley found himself looking into his own face as he had glimpsed it too often, red-eyed like Mikhel's, in Ann's pretty gilt mirrors in their house in Bywater Street.

"So if he wouldn't let you help him, what did you do?" Smiley asked with the same studied casualness. Sit up and read - play chess with Elvira?"

Mikhel's brown eyes held him a moment, slipped away and came back to him.

"No, Max, he replied with great courtesy. "I gave him the maps. He desired to be left alone with them. I wished him goodnight. I was asleep by the time he left."

But not Elvira, apparently, Smiley thought. Elvira stayed behind for instruction from her proxy brother. Active as a patriot, as a man, as a leader, Smiley rehearsed. Active in all respects.

"So what contact have you had with him since?" Smiley asked and Mikhel came suddenly to yesterday. Nothing till yesterday, Mikhel said.

"Yesterday afternoon he called me on the telephone. Max, I swear to you I had not heard him so excited for many years. Happy, I would say ecstatic. 'Mikhel, Mikhel!' Max, that was a delighted man. He would come to me that night. Last night. Late maybe but he will have my fifty pounds. 'General,' I tell him. 'What is fifty pounds? Are you well? Are you safe? Tell me.' 'Mikhel, I have been fishing and I am happy. Stay awake,' he says to me.' 'I shall be with you at eleven o'clock, soon after. I shall have the money. Also it is necessary I beat you at chess to calm my nerves.' I stay awake, make tea, wait for him. And wait. Max, I am a soldier, for myself I am not afraid. But for the General - for that old man, Max - I was afraid. I phone the Circus, an emergency. They hang up on me. Why? Max, why did you do that, please?"


"Basta. So now all Hector got to do is fly to Hamburg at his own expense, take a train north and play rabbit for some crazy entrapment game that otto Leipzig has lined up for himself with the East Germans, the Russians, the Poles, the Bulgarians, the Cubans, and also no doubt, being modern, the Chinese. I said to him - George, listen to me - I said to him: 'Vladimir, old friend, excuse me, pay attention to me once. Tell me what in life is so important that the Circus pays five thousand Swiss from its precious reptile fund for one lousy audition with Otto Leipzig? Maria Callas never got so much and believe me she sings a damn lot better than Otto does.' He's holding my arm. Here." Demonstrating, Toby grasped his own bicep. "Squeezing me like I am an orange. That old boy had some strength still, believe me. 'Fetch the document for me, Hector.' He is speaking Russian. That's a very quiet place, the museum. Everyone has stopped to listen to him. I had a bad feeling. He is weeping. 'For the sake of God, Hector, I am an old man, I got no legs, no passport, no one I can trust but Otto Leipzig. Go to Hamburg and fetch the document. When he sees the proof, Max will believe me, Max has faith.' I try to console him, make some hints, I tell him émigrés are bad news these days, change of policy, new government. I advise him, 'Vladimir, go home, play some chess. Listen, I come round to the library one day, have a game maybe.' Then he says to me: 'Hector, I began this. It was me sent the order to Otto Leipzig telling him to explore the position. Me who sent the money to him for the groundwork, all I had.' Listen, that was an old, sad man. Past it."


"Grigoriev left the Embassy on his own five minutes ago, wearing a hat and coat," Toby said as soon as Smiley arrived. "He's heading for the town on foot. It's like the first Sunday we watched him. He walks to the Embassy, ten minutes later he sets off for the town. He's going to watch the chess game, George, no question. What do you say?"

"Who's with him?"

"Skordeno and de Silsky on foot, a back-up car behind, two more ahead. One team's heading for the Cathedral Close right now. Do we go, George, or don't we?"

For a moment, Toby was aware of that disconnection which seemed to afflict Smiley whenever the operation gathered speed: less indecision, than a mysterious reluctance to advance.

He pressed him: "The green light, George? Or not? George, please! We are speaking of seconds here!"

"Is the house still covered for when Grigorieva and the children get back?"


For a moment longer Smiley hesitated. For a moment, he weighed the method against the prize and the grey and distant figure of Karla seemed actually to admonish him.

"The green light, then," said Smiley. "Yes. Go."

He had barely finished before Toby was standing in the telephone kiosk not twenty metres from the pavilion. "With my heart going like a complete steam engine," as he later claimed. But also with the light of battle in his eyes.

There is even a scale model of the scene at Sarratt, and occasionally the directing staff will dig it out and tell the tale.

The old city of Berne is best described as a mountain, a fortress, and a peninsula all at once, as the model shows. Between the Kirchenfeld and Kornhaus bridges, the Aare runs in a horseshoe cut in a giddy cleft, and the old city roosts prudently inside it, in rising foothills of medieval streets, till in reaches the superb late-Gothic spire of the Cathedral, which is both the mountain's peak and its glory. Next to the Cathedral, at the same height, stands the Platform, from whose southern perimeter the unwary visitor may find himself staring down a hundred feet of sheer stone face, straight into the swirling river. It is a place to draw suicides and no doubt there have been some. It is a place where, according to popular history, a pious man was thrown from his horse and, though he fell the whole awesome distance, survived by God's deliverance to serve the church for another thirty years, dying peacefully at a great age. The rest of the Platform makes a tranquil spot, with benches and ornamental trees and a children's playgroind - and, in recent years, a place for public chess. The pieces are two foot or more in height, light enough to move, but heavy enough to withstand the occasional thrust of a south wind that whips off the surrounding hills. The scale model even runs to replicas of them.

By the time Toby Esterhase arrived there that Sunday morning, the unexpected sunshine had drawn a small but tidy body of the game's enthusiasts, who stood or sat around the chequered pavement. And at their centre, a mere six feet from where Toby stood, as oblivious to his surroundings as could be wished, stood Counsellor (Commercial) Anton Grigoriev of the Soviet Embassy in Berne, a truant from both work and family, intently following, through his rimless spectacles, each move the players made. And behind Grigoriev stood Skordeno and his companion de Silsky, watching Grigoriev. The players were young and bearded and volatile - if not art students, then certainly they wished to be taken for them. And they were very conscious of fighting a duel under the public gaze.

Toby had been this close to Grigoriev before, but never when the Russian's attention was so firmly locked elsewhere. With the calm of impending battle, Toby appraised him and confirmed what he had all along maintained: Anton Grigoriev was not a fieldman. His rapt attention, the unguarded frankness of his expressions as each move was played or contemplated, had an innocence which could never have survived the infighting of Moscow Centre.

Toby's personal appearance was another of those happy chances of the day. Out of respect for the Bernese Sunday, he had donned a dark overcoat and his balck fur hat. He was therefore, at this crucial moment of improvisation, looking exactly as he would have wished had he planned everything to the last detail: a man of position takes his Sunday relaxation.

Toby's dark eyes lifted to the Cathedral Close. The get-away cars were in position.

A ripple of laughter went out. With a flourish, one of the bearded players lifted his queen and, pretending it was a most appalling weight, reeled with it a couple of steps and dumped it with a groan. Grigoriev's face darkened into a frown as he considered this unexpected move. On a nod from Toby, Skordeno and de Silsky drew one to either side of him, so close that Skordeno's shoulder was actually nudging the quarry's, but Grigoriev paid no heed. Taking this as their signal, Toby's watchers began sauntering into the crowd, forming a second echelon behind de Silsky and Skordeno. Toby waited no longer. Placing himself directly in front of Grigoriev, he smiled and lifted his hat. Grigoriev returned the smile - uncertainly, as one might to a diplomatic colleague half-remembered - and lifted his hat in return.


Undeterred, the priest handed him a Swiss passport in the name of Adolf Glaser. Every month, said the priest, the account would be credited with several thousand Swiss francs, sometimes even ten or fifteen. Grigoriev would now be told what use to make of them. It was very secret, the priest repeated patiently, and to the secrecy belonged both a reward, and a threat. Very much as Smiley had done an hour before, the priest boldly set out each in turn. "Sir, you should have observed his composure towards me," Grigoriev told Smiley incredulously. "His composure, his authority in all circumstances! In a chess game he would win everything, merely by his nerves."

"But he was not playing chess," Smiley objected drily.

"Sir, he was not," Grigoriev agreed, and with a sad shake of his head resumed his story.

John Le Carré, Smiley's People, Pan, 1980, p.96, p.97, p.108-9, p.115, p.116-7, p.155-6, p.285-8, p.305. (Original date of publication 1979.)

Playing the drunk, thought Landau, his mind still on Barley. Playing the fool and fooling us. Burning up the last of your family money, running the old firm deeper into the ground. Oh yes. Except that somehow or another you always managed to find one of those smart City banking houses to bale you out in the nick of time, didn't you? And what about your chess-playing then? That should have been a clue, if Landau had only had eyes for it! How does a man who's drunk himself silly beat all comers at chess then, Harry - straight games - if he isn't a trained spy?


"And Barley's really all right, is he? He hadn't had an accident or anything?"

Ned seemed not to hear. He took a fresh card and resumed his writing.

"I suppose Barley would have used the Embassy, wouldn't he?" said Landau. "Him being a professional, Barley. It's the chess that gives him away, if you want to know. He shouldn't play it, in my opinion. Not in public."


After five days of chasing after Barley, they thought they knew everything about him except where he was. They knew his free-thinking parentage and his expensive education, both wasted, and the unedifying details of his marriages, all broken. They knew the café in Camden Town where he played his chess with any layabout spirit who happened to drift in. A regular gentleman, even if he was the guilty party, they told Wicklow, who was posing as a divorce agent. Under the usual tacky but effective pretexts, they had doorstepped a sister in Hove who despaired of him, tradesmen in Hampstead who were writing to him, a married daughter in Grantham who adored him and a grey-wolf son in the City who was so withdrawn he might have taken a vow of silence.


"The Ambassador will verify me. If you ask him whether he can manage golf on Thursday, he'll tell you not till five o'clock."

"I don't play golf," said Barley, taking down another volume. "I don't play anything, actually. I've retired from all games."

"Except chess," Ned suggested, holding out the open telephone directory to him. With a shrug Barley dialled the number. Hearing the Ambassador, he gave a raffish if rather puzzled smile. "Is that Tubby? Barley Blair here. How about a spot of the golf on Thursday for your liver?"

An acid voice said it was engaged till five o'clock.


The passage that followed was never paraphrased, never condensed, never 'reconstrued'. For the initiated, either the unedited tape was played or else the transcript was offered in its entirety. For the uninitiated it never existed. It was the crux of everything that followed and it was called with deliberate obfuscation 'the Lisbon Approach'. When the alchemists and theologians and end-users on both sides of the Atlantic had their turn, this was the passage they picked out and ran through their magic boxes to justify the pre-selected arguments that characterised their artful camps.

"'Not a spy, actually, Goethe old boy. Not now, never have been, never will. May be your line of country, not mine. How about chess? Fond of chess? Let's talk about chess.'

"Doesn't seem to hear. 'And you are not an American? You are nobody's spy, not even ours?'

"'Goethe, listen', I say. 'I'm getting a bit jumpy, to be honest. I'm nobody's spy, I'm me. Let's either talk about chess or you try a different address, okay?' I thought that would shut him up, but it didn't. Knew all about chess, he said. In chess, one chap has a strategy, and if the other chap doesn't spot it or he relaxed his watch, you win. In chess, the theory is the reality. But in life, in certain types of life, you can have a situation where a player has such grotesque fantasies about another one that he ends up by inventing the enemy he needs. Do I agree? Goethe, I agree totally. Then suddenly it's not chess any more and he's explaining himself the way Russians do when they're drunk. Why he's on the earth, for my eyes only. Says he was born with two souls, just like Faust, which is why we call him Goethe. Says his mother was a painter but she painted what she saw, so naturally she wasn't allowed to exhibit or buy materials. Because anything we see is a State secret. Also if it's an illusion it's a State secret. Even if it doesn't work and never will, it's a State secret. And if it's a lie from top to bottom, then it's the hottest State secret of the lot. Says his father did twelve years in the camps and died of a surfeit of intellectual ability. Says the problem with his father was, he was a martyr. Victims are bad enough, saints are worse, he says, but martyrs are the living end. Do I agree?"


Silence. And more silence. Then finally, "He was drunk. Maybe twice in my life I've been as drunk as he was. Call it three times. He'd been on the whit stuff all day long and he was still drinking it like water. But he'd hit one of those clear spells. I believed him. He's not the kind of chap you don't believe."

Walter again, furious.

"But what did you believe? What did you think he was talking to you about? What do you think he did? All this chatter about things not reaching their targets, lying to his masters and yours, chess that isn't chess but something else? You can add, can't you? Why didn't you come to us? I know why! You put your head in the sand. 'Don't know because don't want to know.' That's you."


Most of all he took to the family atmosphere which Ned, with his instinct for the unanchored joe, assiduously tended - the chatty suppers, the sharing and being the star of the family, the games of chess with old Palfrey, whom Ned cunningly harnessed to Barley's wagon to redress the disturbingly ephemeral influence of Walter.

"Drop in whenever you're in the mood," Ned told me, with a friendly pat.

So I became Barley's old Harry.

Old Harry, give us a game of chess, damn you! Old Harry, why aren't you staying for supper? Old Harry, where's your bloody glass, man?

Ned invited Bob sparingly and Clive not at all. It was Ned's show, Ned's joe. And he had a shrewd eye for Barley's flashpoints.

For the safe house Ned had chosen a pretty Edwardian cottage in Knightsbridge, an area of London where Barley had no connection. Clive winced at the cost but the Americans were paying so his fastidiousness was misplaced. The house lay in a cul-de-sac not five minutes' walk from Harrods and I rented it in the name of the Ethical Research & Action Group, a charitable body I had registered years before and locked away for a rainy day. A cosy Service housekeeper named Miss Coad was placed in charge, and I duly swore her on to the Bluebird indoctrination list. The top-floor nursery was converted into a modest lecture room and, like the rest of the rooms, which were snug and well furnished, it was microphoned.

"This is your home from home for the duration," Ned told Barley, as we showed him round. "Here's your bedroom when you need one, here's your key. Use the phone as much as you like but I'm afraid we'll be listening, so if it's private you'd do better from the box across the road."

For good measure I had extended the Home Office warrant to cover the phone box too. Intense American interest.

Since Barley and I were not long sleepers, we played our chess when the others had turned in. He was an impulsive opponent and often a brilliant one, but there is a calculating streak in me that he never possessed and I was more attuned to his weaknesses than he to mine. After all, I had read his file. But I still remember games where he saw a whole campaign at a glance and with three or four moves and a bellow of amusement forced me to resign.

"Got you, Harry! Say you're sorry! Hang your head!"


Barley and I played chess.

"Do you reckon marriage only works from a distance then?" he asked me, resuming our earlier conversation as if we had never abandoned it.

"I'm quite sure love does," I replied with an exaggerated shudder, and quickly moved the subject to less intimate paths.


Dinner and speeches over, Randy took Ned to the communications room and I walked Barley back to the boat-house. A fierce wind was ripping over the gardens. As we passed in and out of the light-cones Barley seemed to be smiling into it recklessly.

"How about chess?" I asked him as we reached his door.

I wished he could see his face more clearly but I had lost it, just as I had lost his mood. I felt a pat on the arm as he wished me goodnight. His door opened and closed again, but not before I had glimpsed the spectral figure of a sentry standing not two yards from us in the darkness.


We too had our glasses of orange juice. And we had our decent warders, even if they were disguised behind headsets and a surface animosity that quickly melted before Barley's warmth. Within a day of our arrival, the same guards with whom we were forbidden to fraternise were tiptoeing at any odd moment in and out of Barley's boat-house, stealing a Coke or a Scotch from him before slipping back to their posts. They sensed he was that kind of man. And as Americans they were fascinated by his celebrity.

There was one old hand called Edgar, an ex-Marine, who gave him quite a run for his money at chess. Barley, I learned later, got his name and address out of him, against every known canon of the trade, so they could play a contest by post "when this is all over".


"Mr Brown, do you have anything very much to do with past or former Soviet citizens in the United Kingdom?"

"Cultural Attaché, now and then. When he can be bothered to answer, which isn't often. If a Sov writer comes over and the Embassy gives a binge for him, I'll probably go along."

"We understand you like to play chess at a certain café in the area of Camden Town, London."


"Is this not a café frequented by Russian exiles, Mr Brown?"

Barley raised his voice but othwrwise held steady. "So I know Leo. Leo likes to lead from weakness. I know Josef. Josef charges at anything that moves. I don't go to bed with them and I don't trade secrets with them."


"Barley, did I read somewhere, or am I dreaming, you once played sax in the great Ray Noble's band?"

"Beardless boy in those days, Brady."

"Wasn't Ray just the sweetest man you ever knew?" Didn't he make the best sound ever?" Brady asked as only Southerners can.

"Ray was a prince." Barley hummed a few bars from 'Cherokee'.

"Too bad about his politics," Brady said, smiling. "We all tried to talk him out of that nonsense, but Ray would go his way. Ever play chess with him?"

"Yes I did, as a matter of fact."

"Who won?"

"Me, I think. Not sure. yes, me."

Brady smiled. "So did I."


Spying is waiting.

We waited three days, and you may still count the hours in my grey hairs. We had split on grounds of seniority: Sheriton to go with Bob and Clive to Langley; Ned to stay on the island with his joe, Palfrey to remain with them on standby, though what I was standing by for was a mystery to me. I hated the island by then and I suspected that Ned and Barley did too, though I could get no nearer to Ned than I could to Barley. He had become remote and for the time being humourless. Something had happened to his pride.

So we waited. And played distracted chess, seldom finishing a game. And listened to Randy talk about his yacht. And listened for the telephone. And to the screaming of the birds and the pulse of the sea.


As to his loyalty to his country, Brley saw it only as a question of which England he chose to serve. His last ties to the imperial fantasy were dead. The chauvinist drumbeat revolted him. He would rather be trampled by it than march with it. He knew a better England by far, and it was inside himself.

He lay on his bed, waiting for the fear to seize him, but it woudn't. Instead, he found himself playing a kind of mental chess, because chess was about possibilities, and it seemed best to contemplate them in tranquillity rather than try and sort through them when the roof was falling in.


For his immediate business Barley must use the grey men's wiles. He must be himself but more so than he has ever been before. He must wait. He must worry. He must be a man reversed, inwardly reconciled, outwardly unfulfilled. He must live secretly on tiptoe, arch as a cat inside his head while he acts the Barley-Blair they wish to see, their creature all the way.

Meanwhile the chess-player in him reckons his moves. The slumbering negotiator is becoming unobservably awake. The publisher is achieving what he has never achieved before, he is becoming the cool-headed broker between the necessity and the far vision.


He was thinner, he was harder and he was straighter, with the result that he had become very tall indeed, taller than me by a head. You're a nerveless traveller, I remember thinking as I waited. It was what Hannah in her early days used to say we should both of us learn to become. The old untidy gestures had left him. The discipline of small spaces had done its work. He was trim. He was wearing jeans and an old cricket shirt with the sleeves rolled to the elbow. He had splashes of white paint on his forearms and a smear of it across his forehead. I saw a step-ladder behind him and a half-whited wall, and at the centre of the room heaps of books and gramophone records partly protected with a dustsheet.

"Come for a game of chess, Harry?" he asked, still not smiling.


John Le Carré, The Russia House, Coronet, 1990, p.36, p.53, p.70, p.80, p.111-2, p.116, p.133-4, p.139-40, p.281-2, p.283-4, p.298, p.302, p.391, p.348, p.382, p.421. (Original date of publication 1989.)

[Thanks to Tim Spalding, Jeremy Dibbell, British Library Reference Services and Tom]
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