[CN: colonialism, racism, sexism]
The two names that are consistently dropped when it comes to male English authors who write genre novels with extreme sophistication are John le Carré and Patrick O’Brian. The latter im familiar with. i devoured the Aubrey-Maturin series in my teens though i only got ten books in. i always had one volume or another open under my desk in high school.
On the other hand, THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY is my first le Carré, chosen bc it takes place in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia, although it’s the middle book of a trilogy about the grandfatherly head of MI6 or “the Circus,” George Smiley, and his rivalry with Karla, the head of a Soviet intelligence apparatus. i picked up a yellowed paperback copy way back in 2010 and didnt get around to it until just now.
Capsule review: i liked it.
It’s extremely well-written, the plot asks you to keep up with the information, there are a lot of colorful characters so that while the story action is pretty low-key as befitting a “realistic” take on spycraft, it’s still peopled with slightly exaggerated and sometimes burlesque figures and the result is enjoyable.
The buildup is patient. We start with some secondary characters — a chorus of alcoholic and skeevy newspaper dudes who find a scoop in Hong Kong involving British Secret Service activities. What they’re witnessing is the fallout of the last book, TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, where a high ranking Communist mole is outed, leaving the Circus in shambles (perhaps a fictionalized version of Kim Philby). Smiley and his tight-nit crew go about fixing the scrambled intel this mole has left behind, discovering that he had misdirected London and the CIA from some kind of money laundering scheme going on between the Soviet Union and a high-profile capitalist in Hong Kong.
Smiley sends in field agent Jerry Westerby, and what follows involves blackmail, opium, bush flying, torture, heroin, sex workers, guerrilla warfare, drinking, decadent fashion parties, boats, the fall of Saigon, bigoted Brits, wonder bread CIA agents, and lots of skillfully observed interrogations.
These events are recounted by the narrator as an established history referred to as the Dolphin case. You can guess from the tone of the opening paragraphs that this case got cocked up along the line. i admired this willingness to focus not on plot hooks but processes; the narrator occasionally brings in speculation from different positions in the bureaucracy on what went wrong and where.
Of course human failing is to blame. The USen parlance would ID it as a “snafu,” and there’s an amusing moment where Smiley, for all of the Circus’s jargon, is baffled by the term. i wont spoil the exact nature of the fatal errors. Just that while it was a bit of a stock narrative, le Carré handles it with a light hand, letting certain developments happen off-stage, refusing to force-feed us motivations when small bits of behavior and a dry writing voice are enough.
The trouble with spying is that, along with running a state i suppose, the whole operation tends to run against an individual’s loyalty to integrity. The jargon of the spy world, which this blog’s title refers to, a line from a minor character, comes in here. All organizations build up a separate language around them. And the language breeds new modes of behavior that dont have to answer to the ethics on the outside. When you’re working on behalf of an organization you find yourself having to do things contrary not only to your moral values but more basic desires — the simultaneous detachment from and self-containment of human behavior in these horrible institutions is part of what lets evil prevail in them.
Craw, one of the characters we meet early, has a brief line halfway in the book:
Agents are only as good as the targets they’re pointed at.
That is, MI6 uses people as agents in order to use other people. i admire le Carré’s writing voice in how it regards these issues with a sort of remote dismay. He’s not even disappointed; he’s just stopped expecting anything decent to come out of this. It’s not a simplistic Us good democratic capitalists versus those rotten Commies issue, if anything MI6 and the Soviet Intelligence Department are portrayed as two of a kind; two bloated state powers treating the world as their chess board, with ecological ruin and warfare and poverty as the result (all this spying is at the end of the day to protect state trade interests after all). Ideology is a dressing — at the bottom it’s just “them,” and “we,” and do you ever really know “we” are in the right? Especially when we know we as a country consented to the use of torture?
Regarding the depiction of Southeast Asians and Chinese — well, im not so sure. It’s the same problem i had while reading HEART OF DARKNESS. The narrator seems to be in a sympathetic place, regarding imperialism from an ambivalent to somewhat critical stance. But the indigenous people of these countries, colonized by the British, the French, or puppeteered by the CIA, bearing the brunt of globalized exploitation, are never quite seen as full human beings. (All of these locations are vividly described by the way, with small details like the scent of cooking oil or the sounds of a festival.) Craw again on the Chinese:
We colonise them, Your Graces, we corrupt them, we exploit them, we bomb them, sack their cities, ignore their culture, and confound them with the infinite variety of our religious sects. We are hideous not only in their sight, Monsignors, but in their nostrils as well — the stink of the round-eye is abhorrent to them and we’re too thick even to know it. Yet when we have done our worst, and more than our worst, my sons, we have barely scratched the surface of the Asian smile.
This wasnt a deal-breaker for me since i dont necessarily need characters to be likable and the prose was so good, but i wouldnt judge if you had better things to do than read this. The main women in the story are all decently drawn, all three of them, but none is treated all that well by the men who run this show (im reminded of Maso’s essay).
i mentioned above that there are lots of great interrogations/interviews, and this excerpt is one of them, taken from the middle of the book. Connie Sachs (my favorite character) and Doc di Salis, two close and trusted Circus people on the academic side of things, are trying to get more intel on the Hong Kong entrepreneur suspect Drake Ko by pretending to be government officials visiting an octogenarian dude who served as a Missionary priest in Shanghai during the Chinese civil war. Observe how nicely rendered the characters are, their responses to the situation, their peculiar tics. Connie is chipper (she brings her frou-frou dog to work) and socially tactful. di Salis doesn’t handle himself too well but has “moments of glory” elsewhere as the resident expert on “the Orient.” Doris, the Reverend’s long-suffering daughter, has great moments as well. And this is just the first bit of a long scene — 20 pages or so. le Carré is happy to let it all sprawl out, in the way of the great 19th century storytellers.
THE HONOURABLE SCHOOLBOY by John le Carré
‘There’s the possibility of a knighthood,’ Connie Sachs said. They had said it already on the telephone.
It was a very sober scene. Connie had bobbed her hair. She wore a dark brown hat and a dark brown suit, and she carried a dark brown handbag to contain the radio microphone. Outside in the little drive, in a blue cab with the engine and the heater on, Toby Esterhase the Hungarian pavement artist, wearing a peaked cap, pretended to doze while he received and recorded the conversation on the instruments beneath his seat. Connie’s extravagant shape had acquired a prim discipline. She held a Stationery Office notebook handy, and a Stationery Office ballpoint pen between her arthritic fingers. As to the remote di Salis, the art had been to modernise him a little. Under protest, he wore one of Guillam’s striped shirts, with a dark tie to match. The result, somewhat surprisingly, was quite convincing.
‘It’s extremely confidential,’ Connie said to Mr Hibbert, speaking loud and clear. She had said that on the telephone as well.
‘Enormously,’ di Salis muttered in confirmation, and flung his arms about till one elbow settled awkwardly on his knobbly knee, and a crabbed hand enclosed his chin, then scratched it.
The Governor had recommended one, she said, and now it was up to the Board to decide whether or not they would pass the recommendation on to the Palace. And on the word Palace she cast a restrained glance at di Salis, who at once smiled brightly but modestly, like a celebrity at a chat show. His strands of grey hair were slicked down with cream, and looked (said Connie later) as though they had been basted for the oven.
‘So you will understand,’ said Connie, in the precise accents of a female newsreader, ‘that in order to protect our noblest institutions against embarrassment, a very thorough enquiry has to be made.’
‘The Palace,’ Mr Hibbert echoed, with a wink in di Salis’s direction. ‘Well I’m blowed. The Palace, hear that, Doris?’ He was very old. The record said eighty-one, but his features had reached the age where they were once more unweathered. He wore a clerical dog-collar and a tan cardigan with leather patches on the elbows and a shawl around his shoulders. The background of the grey sea made a halo round his white hair. ‘Sir Drake Ko,’ he said. ‘That’s one thing I’d not thought of, I will say.’ His North Country accent was so pure that, like his snowy hair, it could have been put on. ‘Sir Drake,’ he repeated. ‘Well I’m blowed. Eh, Doris?’
A daughter sat with them, thirty to forty-odd, blonde, and she wore a yellow frock and powder but no lipstick. Since girlhood, nothing seemed to have happened to her face, beyond a steady fading of its hopes. When she spoke she blushed, but she rarely spoke. She had made pastries, and sandwiches as thin as handkerchiefs, and seed-cake on a doily. To strain the tea she used a piece of muslin with beads to weight it stitched round the border. From the ceiling hung a pronged parchment lampshade made in the shape of a star. An upright piano stood along one wall with the score of ‘Lead Kindly Light’ open on its stand. A sampler of Kipling’s If hung over the empty fire grate, and the velvet curtains on either side of the sea window were so heavy they might have been there to screen off an unused part of life. There were no books, there was not even a Bible. There was a very big colour television set and there was a long line of Christmas cards hung laterally over string; wings downward, like shot birds halfway to hitting the ground. There was nothing to recall the China coast, unless it was the shadow of the winter sea. It was a day of no weather and no wind. In the garden, cacti and shrubs waited dully in the cold. Walkers went quickly on the promenade.
They would like to take notes, Connie added: for it is Circus folklore that when the sound is being stolen, notes should be taken, both as fallback and for cover.
‘Oh, you write away,’ Mr Hibbert said encouragingly. ‘We’re not all elephants, are we, Doris? Doris is, mind, wonderful her memory is, good as her mother’s.’
‘So what we’d like to do first,’ said Connie – careful all the same to match the old man’s pace – ‘if we may, is what we do with all character witnesses, as we call them, we’d like to establish exactly how long you’ve known Mr Ko, and the circumstances of your relationship with him.’
Describe your access to Dolphin, she was saying, in a somewhat different language.
Talking of others, old men talk about themselves, studying their image in vanished mirrors.
‘I was born to the calling,’ Mr Hibbert said. ‘My grandfather, he was called. My father, he had, oh a big parish in Macclesfield. My uncle died when he was twelve, but he still took the Pledge, didn’t he, Doris? I was in missionary training-school at twenty. By twenty-four I’d set sail for Shanghai to join the Lord’s Life Mission. The Empire Queen she was called. We’d more waiters than passengers the way I remember it. Oh dear.’
He aimed to spend a few years in Shanghai teaching and learning the language, he said, and then with luck transfer to the China Inland Mission and move to the interior.
‘I’d have liked that. I’d have liked the challenge. I’ve always liked the Chinese. The Lord’s Life wasn’t posh, but it did a job. Now those Roman schools, well they were more like your monasteries, and with all that entails,’ said Mr Hibbert.
Di Salis, the sometime Jesuit, gave a dim smile.
‘Now we’d got our kids in from the streets,’ he said. ‘Shanghai was a rare old hotchpotch, I can tell you. We’d everything and everyone. Gangs, corruption, prostitution galore, we’d politics, money and greed and misery. All human life was there, wasn’t it, Doris? She wouldn’t remember, really. We went back after the war, didn’t we, but they soon chucked us out again. She wasn’t above eleven, even then, were you? There weren’t the places left after that, well not like Shanghai, so we came back here. But we like it, don’t we, Doris?’ said Mr Hibbert, very conscious of speaking for both of them. ‘We like the air. That’s what we like.’
‘Very much,’ said Doris, and cleared her throat with a cough into her large fist.
‘So we’d fill up with whatever we could get, that’s what it came to,’ he resumed. ‘We had old Miss Fong. Remember Daisy Fong, Doris? Course you do – Daisy and her bell? Well she wouldn’t really. My, how the time goes, though. A Pied Piper, that’s what Daisy was, except it was a bell, and her not a man, and she was doing God’s work even if she did fall later. Best convert I ever had, till the Japs came. She’d go down the streets, Daisy would, ringing the daylights out of that bell. Sometimes old Charlie Wan would go along with her, sometimes I’d go, we’d choose the docks or the nightclub areas – behind the Bund maybe – Blood Alley we called that street, remember, Doris? – she wouldn’t really – and old Daisy would ring her bell, ring, ring!’ He burst out laughing at the memory: he saw her before him quite clearly, for his hand was unconsciously making the vigorous movements of the bell. Di Salis and Connie politely joined in his laughter, but Doris only frowned. ‘Rue de Jaffe, that was the worst spot. In the French concession not surprisingly, where the houses of sin were. Well they were everywhere really, Shanghai was jam- packed with them. Sin City they called it. And they were right. Then a few kids gathered and she’d ask them: ‘Any of you lost your mothers?’ And you’d get a couple. Not all at once, here one, there one. Some would try it on, like, for the rice supper, then get sent home with a cuff. But we’d always find a few real ones, didn’t we, Doris, and bit by bit we had a school going, forty-four we had by the end, didn’t we? Some boarders, not all. Bible Class, the three R’s, a bit of geography and history. That’s all we could manage.’
Restraining his impatience, di Salis had fixed his gaze on the grey sea and kept it there. But Connie had arranged her face in a steady smile of admiration, and her eyes never left the old man’s face.
‘That’s how Daisy found the Ko’s,’ he went on, oblivious of his erratic sequence. ‘Down in the docks, didn’t she, Doris, looking for their mother. They’d come up from Swatow, the two of them. When was that? Nineteen thirty-six I suppose. Young Drake was ten or eleven, and his brother Nelson was eight, thin as wire they were; hadn’t had a square meal for weeks. They became rice Christians overnight, I can tell you! Mind you, they hadn’t names in those days, not English naturally. They were boat people, Chiu Chow. We never really found out about the mother, did we, Doris? Killed by the guns, they said. Killed by the guns. Could have been Japanese guns, could have been Kuomintang. We never got to the bottom of it, why should we? The Lord had her and that was that. Might as well stop all the questions and get on with it. Little Nelson had his arm all messed. Shocking really. Broken bone sticking through his sleeve, I suppose the guns did that as well. Drake, he was holding Nelson’s good hand, and he wouldn’t let it go for love nor money at first, not even for the lad to eat. We used to say they’d one good hand between them, remember, Doris? Drake would sit there at table clutching on to him, shovelling rice into him for all he was worth. We had the doctor in: he couldn’t separate them. We just had to put up with it. You’ll be Drake, I said. And you’ll be Nelson, because you’re both brave sailors, how’s that? It was your mother’s idea, wasn’t it, Doris? She’d always wanted boys.’
Doris looked at her father, started to say something, and changed her mind.
‘They used to stroke her hair,’ the old man said, in a slightly mystified voice. ‘Stroke your mother’s hair and ring old Daisy’s bell, that’s what they liked. They’d never seen blonde hair before. Here, Doris, how about a drop more saw? MIne’s run cold so I’m sure theirs has. saw’s Shanghainese for tea,’ he explained. ‘In Canton they call it cha. We’ve kept some of the old words, I don’t know why.’
With an exasperated hiss, Doris bounded from the room, and Connie seized the opportunity to speak.
‘Now, Mr Hibbert, we have no note of a brother till now,’ she said, in a slightly reproachful tone. ‘He was younger, you say. Two years younger? Three?’
‘No note of Nelson?’ The old man was amazed. ‘Why, he loved him! Drake’s whole life, Nelson was. Do anything for him. No note of Nelson, Doris?’
But Doris was in the kitchen, fetching saw.
Referring to her notes, Connie gave a strict smile. I’m afraid it’s we who are to blame, Mr Hibbert, I see here that Government House has left a blank against brothers and sisters. There’ll be one or two red faces in Hong Kong quite shortly, I can tell you. You don’t happen to remember Nelson’s date of birth, I suppose? Just to shortcut things?’
‘No, my goodness! Daisy Fong would remember of course, but she’s long gone. Gave them all birthdays, Daisy did, even when they didn’t know them theirselves.’
Di Salis hauled on his ear lobe, pulling his head down. ‘Or his Chinese forenames?’ he blurted in his high voice. ‘They might be useful, if one’s checking?’
Mr Hibbert was shaking his head. ‘No note of Nelson! Bless my soul! You can’t really think of Drake, not without little Nelson at his side. Went together like bread and cheese, we used to say. Being orphans, naturally.’
From the hall, they heard a telephone ringing and, to the secret surprise of both Connie and di Salis, a distinct ‘Oh hell’ from Doris in the kitchen as she dashed to answer it. They heard clippings of angry conversation against the mounting whimper of a tea-kettle. ‘Well, why isn’t it? Well if it’s the bloody brakes, why say it’s the clutch? No, we don’t want a new car. We want the old one repaired for God’s sake. ‘ With a loud ‘Christ’ she rang off, and returned to the kitchen and the screaming kettle.
‘Nelson’s Chinese forenames,’ Connie prompted gently, through her smile, but the old man shook his head.
‘You’d have to ask old Daisy that,’ he said. ‘And she’s long in Heaven, bless her.’ Di Salis seemed about to contest the old man’s claim to ignorance, but Connie shut him up with a look. Let him run, she was urging. Force him and we’ll lose the whole match.
The old man’s chair was on a swivel. Unconsciously, he had worked his way clockwise, and now he was talking to the sea.
‘They were like chalk and cheese,’ Mr Hibbert said. ‘I never saw two brothers so different, nor so faithful, and that’s a fact.’
‘Different in what way?’ Connie asked invitingly.
‘Little Nelson now, he was frightened of the cockroaches. That was the first thing. We didn’t have your modern sanitation, naturally. We’d to send them down to the hut and, oh dear, those cockroaches, they flew about that hut like bullets! Nelson wouldn’t go near the place. His arm was mending well enough, he was eating like a fighting cock, but that lad would hold himself in for days on end rather than go inside the hut. Your mother promised him the moon if he’d go. Daisy Fong took a stick to him and I can see his eyes still, he’d look at you sometimes and clench his one good fist and you’d think he’d turn you to stone, that Nelson was a rebel from the day he was born. Then one day we looked out of the window and there they were. Drake with his arm round little Nelson’s shoulder, leading him down the path to keep him company while he did his business. Notice how they walk different, the boat children?’ he asked brightly, as if he saw them now. ‘Bow-legged from the cramp.’
The door was barged open and Doris came in with a tray of fresh tea, making a clatter as she set it down. ‘Singing was just the same,’ he said and fell silent again, gazing at the sea.
‘Singing hymns?’ Connie prompted brightly, glancing at the polished piano with its empty candleholders.
‘Drake, he’d belt anything out as long as your mother was at the piano. Carols. There is a green hill. Cut his own throat for your mother, Drake would. But young Nelson, I never heard him sing one note.’
‘You heard him later all right,’ Doris reminded him harshly, but he preferred not to notice her.
‘You’d take his lunch away, his supper, but he’d not even say his Amens. He’d a real quarrel with God from the start.’ He laughed with sudden freshness. ‘Well those are your real believers, I always say. The others are just polite. There’s no true conversion, not without a quarrel.’
‘Damn garage,’ Doris muttered, still fuming after her telephone can, as she hacked at the seed-cake.
‘Here! Is your driver all right?’ Mr Hibbert cried. ‘Shall Doris take out to him? He must be freezing to death out there! Bring him in, go on!’ But before either of them could answer, Mr Hibbert had started talking about his war. Not Drake’s war, nor Nelson’s, but his own, in unjoined scraps of graphic memory. ‘Funny thing was, there was a lot who thought the Japs were just the ticket. Teach those upstart Chinese Nationalists where to get off. Let alone the Communists, of course. Oh, it took quite a while for the scales to fall, I can tell you. Even after the bombardments started. European shops closed, Taipans evacuated their families, Country Club became a hospital. But there were still the ones who said don’t worry . Then one day, bang, they’d locked us up, hadn’t they, Doris. And killed your mother into the bargain. She’d not the stamina, had she, not after her tuberculosis. Still, those Ko brothers were better off than most, for all that.’
‘Oh. Why was that?’ Connie enquired, all interest.
‘They’d the knowledge of Jesus to guide and comfort them, hadn’t they?’
‘Of course,’ said Connie.
‘Naturally,’ di Salis chimed, linking his fingers and hauling at them. ‘Indeed they had,’ he said unctuously.
So with the Japs, as he called them, the mission closed and Daisy Fong with her handbell led the children to join the stream of refugees, who by cart, bus or train, but mostly on foot, were taking the trail to Shangjao and finally to Chungking where Chiang’s Nationalists had set up their temporary capital.
‘He can’t go on too long,’ Doris warned at one point, in an aside to Connie. ‘He gets gaga.’
‘Oh yes I can, dear,’ Mr Hibbert corrected her with a fond smile. ‘I’ve had my share of life now. I can do what I like.’