le Carré, John. (1999 [1977]). The Honourable Schoolboy. London: Sceptre.

An espionage novel, second in a trilogy of which the other two well-known titles are Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Smiley’s People. The British Secret Service under George Smiley traces a connection between a millionaire ‘Chui Chow’ man called Ko, who has been honoured by the British government and is a pillar of Hong Kong society,   and the  Russian master spy, Karla, against whom Smiley has a personal grudge.   The Hon. Jerry Westerby is sent in to investigate.

The action opens with a series of episodes alternating  between the secret service in London and  expatriate journalists of Hong Kong. Westerby is introduced living in Tuscany before being recalled to London and then sent to Hong Kong. Once in Hong Kong,  he then heads out to the war zone of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos before returning to Hong Kong where there is an extended finale with the UK team arriving as well.

The trail involves the usual combination of money, politics, drugs, sex, and war. The underlying plot, which the reader with the protagonists tries to unpick, is convoluted and is never fully resolved. The anticipated denouement (the arrival in Hong Kong of Ko’s brother, a Russian educated communist agitator whose politics are at odds with Chinese communism) is averted in a move not dissimilar to the end of  Walter Scott’s Redgauntlet.

There are three main protagonists through whose eyes the plot is seen: Smiley, his sidekick Guillam, and Westerby. There is a fourth – a young American reporter Luke – through whose eyes the reader sees action to begin with ; however, this is possibly a deliberate red herring, which implies that he will be the “schoolboy”. He returns later as a reporting buddy to Westerby in the Indochinese war zone, and is killed because he is mistaken for Westerby. All four never know complete story, nor does their combined vision display a complete story to the reader. The reader must, like these four, interpret, guess, and read between lines for implications of action and words. Their view is given through a third person narrator whose viewpoint moves among  them at close range to their individual perspective.

Hong Kong features as the main far eastern location but a considerable portion of the action takes place in the war zone and London. All main characters are Western, predominantly expatriate and there is a kind  of analogue between the role of secret agent and the role of expatriate since both harbour  an at-homeness in their eastern location which is unreal.

The character of Ko and his heavy, Tiu, are the only foregrounded Chinese protagonists. Ko’s brother is only foregrounded as an absent presence in Ko’s life, and in the connection traced by the UK secret service between Russia and Hong Kong. Ko is yet another character whose at-homeness in Hong Kong is presented as a role which covers up his impoverished orphan childhood, brought up by British Baptist missionaries, and his secret other, his brother. Tiu is a stock heavy acting as Ko’s right hand man, and protector. He is physically unappealing, lacking his boss’s charisma and mystery.

The three women of the novel are a British femme fatale, Elizabeth, who has reinvented herself numerous times from childhood; Connie Sachs, a butch secret service expert on Karla and the KGB, crippled with rheumatism; and Phoebe Wayfarer, a neurotic informant in Hong Kong, half Chinese half British. Phoebe and Elizabeth are presented as damaged creatures, neither of whom are particularly bright. Phoebe is less attractive being more neurotic, and there is an implication that this stems in part from being half-caste and her consciousness of it. Connie is more at ease with herself despite her physical damage. The characterisation thus generally works along the lines of right but repulsive, wrong but romantic.

Hong Kong in the novel serves as a locale for a western adventure, and involves only two Chinese protagonists who are not distinctly drawn. Nor does the generic form require them to be – they are pieces in a puzzle to be solved by western protagonists and readers. The focus is male, white, British, educated. Other characters are unusual/quirky national types. Hong Kong itself features as a series of rooms in buildings, and windows through which men look, usually voyeuristically. The racecourse and graveyard in Happy Valley also feature. (KB)


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