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Smiley’s Archive

Film still from Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 2011
with Benedict Cumberbatch as Peter Guillam.

After enjoying the recent movie, I reread John le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974).  About halfway through, it suddenly dawned on me the extent to which understanding all of the treachery and duplicity of le Carré’s Cold War spy novel hinge around the central concept of the archive.  As George Smiley attempts to discover the identity of the Soviet mole that has been placed in the highest levels of the Circus (Smiley’s apt and marvelous name for England’s primary spy agency), he spends countless nights reading files that his colleagues filch for him from the Circus Archives.

Through the remainder of that same night, the light in the dormer window of Mr. Barraclough’s attic room at the Islay Hotel burned uninterrupted.  Unchanged, unshaven, George Smiley remained bowed at the Major’s card table, reading, comparing, annotating, cross-referencing – all with an intensity that, had he been his own observer, would surely have recalled for him the last days of Control on the fifth floor at Cambridge Circus.  Shaking the pieces, he consulted Guillam’s leave roster and sick-lists going back over the last year, and set these beside the overt travel pattern of Cultural Attaché Aleksey Aleksandrovich Polyakov, his trips to Moscow, his trips out of London, as reported to the Foreign Office by Special Branch and the immigration authorities.  He compared these again with the dates when Merlin apparently supplied his information and, without quite knowing why he was doing it, broke down the Witchcraft reports into those which were demonstrably topical at the time they were received and those which could have been banked a month, two months before, either by Merlin or his controllers, in order to bridge empty periods…he was looking, in other terms, for the “last clever knot”…

Although there is a bit of old-fashioned cloak-and-dagger spycraft in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, one of the tensest chapters in the book, in fact, follows Guillam in an elaborately concocted scheme to steal some files right from under the watchful eyes of Circus Archives staff (only a small part of which is quoted below).

One girl stood on a ladder.  Oscar Allitson, the collator, was filling a laundry basket with wrangler files; Astrid, the maintenance man, was mending a radiator.  The shelves were wooden, deep as bunks, and divided into pigeon-holes by panels of ply.  He knew already that the Testify reference was 4482E which meant alcove 44, where he now stood.  “E” stood for “extinct” and was used for dead operations only.  Guillam counted to the eighth pigeon-hole from the left.  Testify should be the second from the left, but there was no way of making certain because the spines were unmarked.  His reconnaissance complete, he drew the two files he had requested, leaving the green slips in the steel brackets provided for them.

The Circus Archives, neatly, if secretively, cataloged and shelved, are a far cry from the uncontrollable archives that lie at the heart of Kafka’s The Castle (J.J. Long refers to the “shambolic amateurishness of Kafka’s filing cupboard”). Probably more than any other writer, it is Kafka who is responsible for the threatening image of the archive that looms over the twentieth century.  W.G. Sebald, of course, continued to explore Kafka’s vision of the role of archives in his four books of prose fiction, but especially in Austerlitz.  As Long says in W.G. Sebald: Image, Archive, Modernity, the archive “lies at the very heart of Sebald’s narrative project.  His work is profoundly concerned with the material and infrastructural basis of knowledge systems…”  Reading le Carré’s description of the Circus Archives made me immediately think of the room described by Jacques Austerlitz and reproduced in a photograph near the end of Austerlitz.  “”I came across a large-format photograph showing the room with open shelves up to the ceiling where the files on the prisoners in the little fortress of Terezín, as it is called, are kept today.”  These files held data on the inmates of the German concentration camp also known as Theresienstadt, where Austerlitz’s birth mother had been sent.

To Smiley, the Circus Archives represented “a very dull monument…to a long and cruel war.”  As he embarks upon his research through the vast Archives he notes that “the files contained only the thinnest record of it; his memory contained far more.”  Nevertheless, it transpires that the very thoroughness of the Circus Archives makes it possible for his research to succeed in helping unmask the Soviet mole.

“Operation Witchcraft,” read the title on the first volume Lacon had brought to him that first night.  “Policy regarding distribution of Special Product.”  The rest of the cover was obliterated by warning labels and handling instructions, including one that quaintly advised the accidental finder to “return the file UNREAD” to the Chief Registrar at the Cabinet Office.  “Operation Witchcraft,” read the second.  “Supplementary estimates to the Treasury, special accommodation in London, special financing arrangements, bounty, etc.”  “Source Merlin,” read the third, bound to the first with pink ribbon.  “Customer Evaluations, cost effectiveness, wider exploitation; see also Secret Annexe.”  But the secret annexe was not attached, and when Smiley asked for it there was a coldness.

“The Minister keeps it in his personal safe,” Lacon snapped.

J.J. Long suggests that “the self-understanding of modernity itself is based not on a pervasive sense of epistemological chaos [referring to the slovenly archive of Kafka’s The Castle], but on an unbroken faith in the rationality of the archive.”  What le Carré and, to some extent, Sebald both show, is that the obsessively maintained archives of modern bureaucratic states creates a kind of rationality that can also be leveraged against those that created and maintained them.  The Circus Archives held the clues that led to the identity of the Soviet mole, just as Nazi-created archives permitted Jacques Austerlitz to learn more about the fate of his mother.  As le Carré’s wry description of file names implies, any agency that ruthlessly archives its customer evaluations and special financing arrangements is just asking for it.

The Cold War of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is a desultory and hollow competition amongst faded empires in which men and nations pursue the false memory of nostalgia with tragic results.

One Comment Post a comment
  1. Funny how a collection of books looks benevolent, but a collection of records seems menacing.

    April 17, 2012

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