Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Le Carré on spies, the Swiss, and a short Hungarian

Peter Guillam is recalling the first time he worked with Toby Esterhase, the surveillance genius of the British Secret Service (a.k.a. "The Circus"):
Whenever he thought of Toby, that was what he thought of: Switzerland eight years ago, when Toby was just a humdrum watcher with a reputation for informal listening on the side. Guillam was kicking his heels after North Africa, so the Circus packed them both off to Berne on a one-time operation to spike a pair of Belgian arms dealers who were using the Swiss to spread their wares in unpopular directions. They rented a villa next door to the target house, and the following night Toby opened up a junction box and rearranged things so that they overheard the Belgians' conversations on their own phone. Guillam was boss and legman, and twice a day he dropped the tapes on the Berne residency, using a parked car as a letter-box. With the same ease, Toby bribed the local postman to give him a first sight of the Belgians' mail before he delivered it, and the cleaning lady to plant a radio mike in the drawing-room where they held most of their discussions. For diversion, they went to Chikito and Toby danced with the youngest girls. Now and then he brought one home, but by morning she was always gone and Toby had the windows open to get rid of the smell.

They lived this way for three months and Guillam knew him no better at the end than he had on the first day. He didn't even know his country of origin. Toby was a snob, and knew the places to eat and be seen. He washed his own clothes and at night he wore a net over his snow white hair, and on the day the police hit the villa and Guillam had to pop over the back wall, he found Toby at the Bellevue Hotel munching pâtisseries and watching the thé dansant. He listened to what Guillam had to say, paid his bill, tipped first the bandleader, then Franz, the head porter, and then led the way along a succession of corridors and staircases to the underground garage where he had cached the escape car and passports. There also, punctiliously, he asked for his bill. Guillam thought, if you ever want to get out of Switzerland in a hurry, you pay your bills first.
The main action of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy is set in 1973, so this anecdote takes place in 1965 or so. I have always loved this as a piece of writing: memorable, vivid, easily evoking a whole little world and its practices, not to mention its characters and values. (Both the surprise and the inevitability of exposure is nicely caught by the matter-of-fact "and on the day the police hit the villa ...".) Esterhase is of course, as his name suggests, a Hungarian. He's a mildly comic figure throughout the Smiley/Karla novels, and not taken 100% seriously as a person by anyone: both because of his mannerisms, and because he's from Hungary, a country that everyone (and especially the Russians) finds intrinsically ridiculous. But no-one denies his talents. "Tiny Toby spoke no known language perfectly," we are told at one point, "but he spoke them all."

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