George Smiley is at once an unlikely hero of spy fiction and, to borrow le Carré’s epithet for a later creation, a perfect spy. A veteran of the intelligence operations of World War II and living in retirement, he is podgy, unobtrusive and unremarkable in appearance, and deferential and self-effacing in manner until called to action. When called from the uncomfortable lassitude of his retirement, he changes little externally but glows with an inner and inexhaustible intensity, whether in his research into the personal and professional histories in the Circus files, in his disbanding and reestablishing of the Circus, or in his tireless quest of personal and national revenge upon Karla, the Thirteenth Directorate, and Moscow Centre. Through it all, a deep and abiding melancholy for a failed marriage and a failed fellowship of the Circus’ Round Table colors even his most determined and single-minded efforts.
His opponent, Karla, is never quite realistically drawn, even in Smiley’s remembrances of their first meeting in the 1950’s, when Smiley offered the unknown Russian captured in India a chance to defect to the West. Indeed, like Control, Karla is known only by his work name, the name of his unit in the Spanish Civil War. He assumes, in the course of the novels, the mythic proportions of a latter-day Professor Moriarty. His one weakness, a trait he shares with Smiley, is his love or affection for one other human being. In Smiley’s case, it is his impossible wife, Ann; in Karla’s, it is...
(The entire section is 618 words.)