Bryan Alexander's Reviews > The Honourable Schoolboy

The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré
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May 27, 14

bookshelves: mystery, historical-fiction, spy, vietnam
Read in May, 2014

This is one of the greatest spy novels I've ever read. It's a powerful, ambitious, satisfying sequel to the very great Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The plot concerns the Circus (British espionage unit) tracking down a Soviet operation in the far East. Smiley rebuilds the shattered agency and hurls it into the fray. Without spoilers I can assert that The Honourable Schoolboy takes place largely in south and southeast Asia, with long stretches back in London, and an ultimate focus on Hong Kong. Every locale is sharply drawn.

The Asian plot plunges into major stories of former Indochina, namely the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge and the conquest of Saigon by the North Vietnamese. Those chapters would have been a standalone novel for any other writer; le Carre works them into the depths of this single book beautifully, integrating tones, themes, and action.

One affecting scene has the book's lead agent, Jerry Westerby (the title is his code name), confronting an American spy right after the fall of Saigon. The somewhat terrifying, utterly depressed American demands that the Brit shake his hand:
"I want you to extend to me the hand of welcome, sir. The United States of America has just applied to join the club of second-class powers, of which I understand your own fine nation to be chairman, president, and oldest member. Shake it!" (436)

Without spoiling, I can view the plot as a detailed description of a single intelligence operation, from start to finish. Or as an epic of moral compromises and attempted redemptions (note the plural). Or a thick slice of a thin moment in Cold War history. The details are extraordinary, from the micropolitics of inter-governmental lobbying to the intricacies of a city quarter to many minor characters.

Honourable is gorgeously written, with passages that range from lyrical to brooding, snarling to contemplative. I've been noting and reading aloud bits from throughout the novel:

The tiny ponds outside the high-rise hotels prickled with slow, subversive rain. (5)

Nobody learned anything, nothing changed, the offal was cleaned away in the morning. (331)

First, Smiley reviewed the wreck, and that took some while, in the way that sacking a city takes some while, or liquidating great numbers of people. (54)

[L]ittle ships, as Craw knew very well, cannot change course as easily as the winds that drive them. (192)

[Smiley]These people terrify me, but I am one of them. If they stab me in the back, then at least that is the judgment of my peers. (533)

Talking of others, old men talk about themselves, studying their image in varnished mirrors. (236)

While the Americans are adding another five metres of concrete to the Embassy roof, and the soldiers are crouching in capes under their trees, and the journalists are drinking whisky, and the generals are at the opium houses, the Khmer Rouge will come out of the jungle and cut our throats. (346)

[Smiley again] To be inhuman in defense of our humanity, he had said, harsh in defense of compassion. To be single-minded in defense of our disparity. (460)

On Britain's elite:
[Jerry Westerby] had never seriously doubted, in his vague way, that his country was in a state of irreversible decline, or that his own class was to blame for the mess. (449)

On getting into something incredibly dangerous:

Sometimes you did it to save face, thought Jerry, other times you just do it because you haven't done your job unless you've scared yourself to death. Other times again, you go in order to remind yourself that survival is a fluke. But mostly you go because the others go - for machismo - and because in order to belong you must share. (341)


Reading matters a great deal, as is usually the case (every medium calls out to itself). Westerby chooses Conrad over Voltaire, just before heading into the fall of republican Cambodia.(328) He's a failed novelist, but very skilled in espionage, arguably as a kind of sublimation. An American spy compares one account to espionage fiction, to "something out of Phillips Oppenheim" (171)

When I finished the book I reread the last two pages several times, teasing out implications, savoring phrases, and letting the mixture of triumph and melancholy wash over me. Then I started to read the whole book from the first chapter, and only now have forced myself to stop in order to write this review. Enough.

I really, really want to read Smiley's People, the next book in this sequence, but am going to let some time pass in order to give The Honourable Schoolboy richly deserved space to breath in my memory and imagination.
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Reading Progress

05/23 page 205
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05/27 marked as: read

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