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Sunday, March 20, 2016

Tinker Tailor, Kim Philby, and the Friends We May Not Know

John Le Carre's, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, is considered by many to be one of the greatest espionage novels ever written. It begins with the head of MI6 (British Secret Service) convinced that there is a Soviet mole planted deep (and high) within MI6. This leads him to send one of his agents, Jim Prideaux, to meet a Czechoslovakian defector who reportedly knows the name of the mole. It turns out to be a set-up, though. The Czech is a plant; he isn't a real defector. Prideaux ends up being shot (but not killed), tortured, and interrogated; the head of MI6 is fired and dies shortly thereafter; and the story's ultimate protagonist, George Smiley, is forced into early retirement. The rest (and the bulk) of the story tells how Smiley is brought back in order to uncover the mole's identity. As anyone who has read the novel knows, it is an exceedingly complex tale, which is why (except for those who've read the book) the 2011 film adaptation is almost impossible to follow (the 1979 miniseries staring Alec Guinness is a little easier to follow but only because of its slightly longer length provides much needed detail).

The novel is ultimately a tale about betrayal, not only of one's country, but of one's friends. I turns out that the mole and Prideaux were close friends, possibly even lovers, but when Prideaux was chosen for the mission to Czechoslovakia, the mole did nothing, sending his good friend to a possible death. After Smiley sets a trap and catches the mole, MI6 arranges to send him to the Soviet Union in exchange for several of the agents he had betrayed. Before this happens, however, he is killed, and while the identity of his killer is never revealed, the reader is left with impression that it is Prideaux.

Tinker Tailor is loosely based on the real-life story of Kim Philby, who rose high in the ranks of British Secret Service before being caught in 1963 after 30 years as a Soviet spy. Philby was one of five spies whom the Soviets recruited while they were at Cambridge in the 1930s ("The Cambridge Five"). He was the best of the bunch. He could dissemble with ease. He was smart, funny, and charming, all of which contributed to his success. If he hadn't been caught, he may well have become head of British Secret Service, which would've been his chef d'oeuvre. He was (probably) allowed to escape to Moscow rather than holding an embarrassing trial in the UK (embarrassing for the UK government, that is).

Kilby had numerous friends in MI6, but none was probably closer than Nicholas Elliot, a fine spy in his own right, and the one who eventually confronted and extracted Kilby's confession in 1963. They and their families spent countless hours together, often vacationing with one another, and when Philby first came under suspicion because of his ties to two of the Cambridge Five who defected to Russia in 1951, Elliot was Philby's staunchest defender. Their friendship, however, did not prevent Philby from betraying his good friend's confidences by routinely passing on information to the Soviet Union that Elliot shared with him, information that sometimes led to the death of others.

Philby's story is recounted brilliantly in Ben Macintyre's, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal, which interestingly (but perhaps unsurprisingly) includes an afterword by John Le Carre. Both it and Tinker Tailor can make you wonder how well we know our friends. Are they what they seem? Are they who they say they are? And if something unexpected happens to one of them, could it be they held (or hold) secrets that the rest of us only read about in novels? We'll probably never know.

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