TINKER Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carré's novel,
filmed recently and now on the DVD circuits, is something of a
parable. It tells of the uncovering of a double agent at the
highest levels of the British intelligence service, and, in the
process, of the revelation of the rottenness of the institution
Unfortunately, the theological questions raised by Le Carré in
the novel, and in the earlier television serial, have been lost in
the remake; this fact deserves some comment, because the issues are
of wider application.
Many of us work in an institution, such as a firm, some arm of
government, a church, or whatever. We like to think that it is
worth working for. Loyalty is not only asked for; we want to give
it. We know, of course, that the organisation is not perfect: human
foibles, human weakness, occasional incompetence, the odd bad
apple; all these are to be expected. And sometimes the harm can
infect the rest of the organisation.
Not only are there times when people let down the organisations
that they belong to, but also the organisations let them down - not
adventitiously, but fundamentally.
JOHN LE CARRE said of his creation George Smiley, the spymaster
who uncovers the identity of the "mole", that he believes in an
England which never really existed: honest, decent, and with
aspirations to fairness. Thus, his wife says to him at the end:
"Life is such a puzzle to you." The idea that one of his colleagues
is a traitor comes hard, although he is relentless in his attempts
to identify him.
Christians, likewise, believe in a world that has never really
existed: life remains - if not a puzzle, then a provisional state
of things that gives only hints and clues as to how things should
Christians may also believe in a Church that has never really
existed. In his quest for the identity of the bad apple, one of
Smiley's informants, Ricki Tarr, an agent in the field, meets a
Russian agent, Irina, who falls for him. She tells him that she
knows of a double agent in London whose name she can reveal only to
the head of the London station. She, too, is disenchanted with her
bosses. She is also fascinated by Christianity. She is found, when
they first meet, reading the Beatitudes; she muses on the giving of
a whole life to prayer by those who enter religious orders.
Her life is, by comparison, muddy and brutal. She lives by
deceit and secrecy, expecting betrayal. The Church of which she
dreams, does it really exist? She is not sure - some priests are
drunkards, she says - but her yearnings are somehow tangled up in
the Britain that she longs to flee to. The effect of Smiley's
investigations, however, steadily reveals her ideal to be something
of a sham, even as he defends his country's standards of decency,
loyalty, and freedom.
Smiley does not quite give up hope, but his is a tragic hope - a
deep-dyed but fragile hope - which depends on personal conduct.
In recent weeks, we have seen how some of the country's most
important institutions have betrayed us. Banks used to share the
same grey image of Le Carré's Circus: dull but dependable. Now we
know that personal conduct within these banks has been
reprehensible, even criminal.
Not only have the banks been self-serving; we discovered this
weekend that they have connived at tax avoidance on an unbelievable
scale. Such news not only throws their loyalty into doubt - there
appears to be none; it also forces us to wonder whether there is
anything left that deserves ours.
AND what of the Church? Irina seeks to recover a lost, or
perhaps never-known, innocence. She dreams of a Church that, if we
are honest, is not to be found - except, that is, through the eyes
of faith and with the forgiveness with which, we hope, Christ looks
upon it. Irina sees something more telling than the squabbles in
convents, than words uttered by those bored by their familiarity,
than preoccupation with the wholly worthless; more telling than W.
B. Yeats's "passionate intensity".
Her naïve vision is the constant challenge that new-found faith
presents to the weariness and cynicism found among church leaders.
Her prayer calls them, likewise, to pray the prayer of longing. In
the novel, she is betrayed by the mole, who is supposed to be
defending Western freedoms. Christ threatened millstones for those
in the Church who inflicted similar harm on the innocent.
THE gloom of the Smiley novels is not overwhelming because there
is Smiley himself. Although there is little about him that conforms
to the usual images of heroism, his unwavering pursuit of the truth
is enough to attract our admiration. But he is of the old order. As
for his successors, many of them appear to believe nothing at all,
and live according to their beliefs.
Here is the question, then: is basic decency, a dogged refusal
to give up ideals about this country and life within it, enough to
inspire personal honesty and a search for justice for others?
It is a question that we will see answered over these next few
years, as the greater ideals lose their grip in this country. We
shall find whether personal standards such as honesty and loyalty
are self-supporting. Or do they require something to underpin them,
such as Irina's aspirational religion? The makers of the recent
film presumably believed the former, and, for that reason, omitted
any reference to religion. If that is true, though, I reckon we are
in a bigger mess than we thought.
Canon Roger Arguile is a former Vicar of St Neots.