Fictograd 2021 Championship of Books
Western Round 1
I know, round 1 of the left half of the bracket, making it the West or Western, and yet I don’t have a single Western that made it anywhere on this list. I am a man of refined tastes, after all.
The way this round works is a simple best-of-three. Each title’s worst category was chosen, along with a wild card category chosen at random. The result of this is we’re going to be talking a lot about Plot this session, so get reaaaaaaaaaaaaady!
First up, we have the #1 seed versus #13, a battle of old versus new, of honesty, of characters, of master versus newcomer, of spy versus… spy. Without further ado, folks, let’s give it up for our first match contestants!
*crowd goes wild*
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen VS The Spy Who Came in from the Cold by John le Carré
Let’s make this match-up truly what it’s about. Over here in the Communism Corner we have The Sympathizer, a novel about a North Vietnamese spy infiltrating the United States. And in the Capitalism Corner we have the Spy Who Came in from the Cold, a novel about a British spy infiltrating East Germany. That’s right folks, get ready for:
Battle of the Ideologies
Round 1: Mass Appeal - ComCorScore: 4 - CapCorScore: 7
Round 2: Gut - ComCorScore: 6 - CapCorScore: 3
Round 3: Plot - ComCorScore: 9 - CapCorScore: 6
Fight one; mass appeal: begin!
Le Carré comes barreling out of the capitalism corner strong, the weight of decades in the spotlight landing the first blow against Nguyen before he can barely rouse himself out of his corner. John le Carré is a household name in the English-speaking world, and the Spy Who Came in from the Cold is the book that made him so. Likewise Viet Thanh Nguyen’s debut novel, the Sympathizer made a splash amongst the literati when it first came out, but its popularity has since dwindled, consigning it to the fate of many modern novels—much to blab about, little actual reading.
That, at least, is the best explanation I can give for why there’s such a disparity between the two Mass Appeal scores for these books. Included in my thinking about the Sympathizer is the two other people I talked to who read this book, a man and a woman—the man had also talked to a different woman about the book as well—all found it difficult. The text itself is not kind to its women. Of the three female characters in the book who are not another male character’s wife, girlfriend, or mother, only one is not a romantic liaison for the male narrator—she is gang-raped, in great detail.
(That’s not true, actually—there is also a movie star the narrator works with tangentially and has a few conversations with. Her role in the movie they are working on is to be gang-raped).
Now, this is not necessarily anything wrong with the book—the narrator is hyper-misogynistic, a reflection of the hyper-misogyny imposed on him by American Imperialism. But, the category for round one is mass appeal, and I think it’s no small thing that of the 4 people in my orbit who read it, including myself, the two women said the book, ‘wasn’t for me.’ So did the guy, for that matter, although when I talked to him he was reacting to the octopus-masturbation, which is fairly early on. I do not know if he ever finished it. The point is, though, that I think there are traits to this book that make it alienating to women, which is why I was so harsh to it in this category. How, after all, can a book have mass appeal if half the population have to ignore being treated as objects by the text?
On the other hand, if all that is to be believed, then le Carré is no better. There are only three women in the Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and none are treated all that favorably by the text. Worse—they are almost caricatures, flat renderings of archetypes—the blabbing, foolish wife who betrays her husband through ineptitude; the prudish librarian, both childishly gossiping and matronly in her severity towards the male main character; the nubile and naive socialist, unabashed in her love for a man 40 years her senior, doomed to die an unwitting pawn in the games of men. Nguyen’s women at least have some depth to them, some agency. If I gave the Sympathizer a 4, surely le Carré’s score of 7 in this category was a little too generous.
Perhaps. And perhaps the Sympathizer will have more staying power in the popular consciousness than I give it credit—it did win a pulitzer. The two can go toe to toe on most topics—spy novels, misogynistic, political, literati darlings.
I’ve spent over 500 words on this, so let’s just call the winner—head-to-head, on the subject of Mass Appeal: le Carré wins. The Sympathizer might have an HBO series soon, but this is the book that got John le Carré fuck-you money.
Score: 1-0, in favor of the Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
Both fighters return to their corners, one bloodied but unbroken, the other’s age starting to show through.
Round two; gut: begin.
Look, this is the only category that is literally, ‘which do I, me, Axeman, the person writing this, like better,’ and I can tell you already that it’s going to go to the Sympathizer. It has its difficulties, the weight of its male gaze is oppressive—even to me, a male—but in terms of the pure electricity in the language—it isn’t close.
I first picked up the Spy Who Came in from the Cold when I was ten and I found it in my grandparent’s attic. I didn’t understand it. I picked it up this last year because the old man had just died and Democracy Now! praised his life for his advocacy of leftist causes. I wanted to go back and see what they meant. This book, with its surprising twist that the British agent hidden within the East German Secret Police is the Nazi, did not disappoint.
But, still, with the benefit of all I know here in 2022, le Carré’s revelation seems trite compared to the Sympathizer. There’s simply too much going on in this book—and too much going for it—for me to make this category the other way. With barely 200 words needed, the round goes to Nguyen.
Score: all tied up.
Both book’s worst categories now out of the way, it all comes down to the wildcard.
Round three; plot.
The Sympathizer follows the narrator, unnamed, the son of a French colonizer and his Vietnamese housekeeper, a pariah of Vietnamese society, educated in the United States, an officer in the South Vietnamese Secret Police, and, most importantly, a communist. Early on, this is called into question by the revelation that the book, the text, is the narrator’s confession to a Vietnamese Interrogator sometime after the fall of Saigon. As part of the Democratic Secret Police, the narrator protects the web of communist agents within Saigon from arrest and, failing that (which he often does), prevents the destruction of the entire network by destroying evidence. Specifically, he mentions an unnamed female communist agent who, in the process of being arrested by the narrator’s team, swallows a list of communist agents in Saigon that includes both the narrator and his handler and childhood friend, Man.
When his Commanding Officer, the General, is given 97 seats (something like that, I’m not going to go find the exact number, which is unimportant for the plot) on an American plane leaving Saigon, the task of choosing who goes is delegated to the narrator. On the advice of Man, the narrator will be one of these 97, continuing the fight for Communism from the heart of America, He also saves seats for his second childhood friend, Bon, a South Vietnamese Paratrooper and definitely not a Communist, and Bon’s wife and child. Once the time for escape comes, an attack on the departing plane results in the death of the wife and child, but the narrator and Bon escape. After months in a refugee camp, Bon, the narrator, the General, his madame, and most of the 97 are relocated to southern California. The narrator gets a job in the Oriental Studies department at the University, the General opens a liquor store, Bon works at said liquor store as a general clean-up man. Bon and the narrator live together, easing their way through post-war life with copious alcohol and little else.
There are several story-lines from here. In one, the General confides in the narrator that he believes the communists may have sent a spy with them to California. The narrator, that spy, names another Captain as the infiltrator, which the General then confirms as true when he learns the Captain’s family in Vietnam is being treated well by the communists. The General orders Bon and the narrator to kill the Captain, which they do—Bon pulls the trigger, but the narrator is haunted by his ghost. At the same time, the narrator is hired to consult on a Hollywood movie about the Vietnam war, an adventure caper about a squad of American soldiers massacring a village—sorry, saving a village from massacre by massacring the communists that live there. The narrator is flown out to the Phillipines, where the movie will be filmed, where he recruits extras for the movie from the Vietnamese there—refugees from the Communists, now hired to play as communists. The narrator also makes connections with the Asian leads—a man around his age who puts himself through actual torture for the authenticity of the role, and a woman whose role, as previously mentioned, is to be a love-interest for one of the white main characters and then gang-raped by communists. By the end of the shoot the narrator has made an enemy of the director and is ‘accidentally’ nearly killed in a faux-napalm-bombing. He returns to the US, where the General has been lobbying politicians to fund an ex-pat military operation to sow dissent in Communist Vietnam. Bon has volunteered to go and the narrator decides to go as well so he can protect Bon, warning Man through secret letter to not kill then. Before he leaves, however, the General has him commit one last assassination—a journalist, old school-friends with the narrator, who has been publishing on the General’s activities in the US.
Bon, the narrator, and their team are quickly captured as they try to enter Vietnam. They are taken to a prisoner camp where the narrator is separated and tortured, his interrogations overseen by a Colonel and a Commissar. Eventually, the narrator reveals under interrogation that the female agent who swallowed the list of sympathizers in Saigon was raped by the Military Police. The narrator was in the room. At this point, the horribly burned Commissar reveals that he is Man, the narrator’s childhood friend and handler. The narrator is further tortured and then released, with Bon, and escape Vietnam (orchestrated by Man). The book ends in the belly of a fishing ship, the narrator unsure if they’ll escape. Since there is a sequel, they presumably do.
The Spy Who Came in from the Cold begins with Alec Leamas, British secret agent, at the Berlin Wall, waiting for a defector to make the crossing. The defector’s lover shows up in a flashy car, tells Leamas she knows the defector is coming, and that he told her of it over the phone. Leamas curses all women and those who have them and returns to the wall just in time to see his defector gunned down by the Communists.
He returns to Britain and the Circus, le Carré’s nom de guerre for the British Secret Service, where Control asks Leamas if he’d like a chance to get back at the East German Secret Police, specifically its leader, Mundt. Leamas says he would like that very much. Control instructs Leamas to see George Smiley, after which Leamas begins to slowly go to seed. He’s assigned to a desk job, which he drinks at and is eventually fired from. He leaves London, get’s a job at a library where he works with two women. He enters into a romantic relationship with one of them, Liz, but tells her to not come looking for him if he ever disappears. He tells her goodbye before he finally does, assaulting the cashier at grocery store and getting himself arrested and sentenced to jail time.
When he gets out, Leamas is approached, recruited, and extricated from the UK and the West by a team from the East German Secret Police. The main figure behind this effort is Feidler, the Police’s 2nd in command, who believes Mundt to be a Western mole and believes Leamas has evidence of this, even if he doesn’t know it. Leamas promises that he would have known if the Circus was running an agent out of Berlin, but Feidler doesn’t care. Feidler gathers the evidence he needs and sends it to the Presidium just as Mundt has both Feidler and Alec arrested. In jail together, Feidler and Leamas are both interrogated, with Mundt acting particularly viciously against Feidler because the latter is a Jew. The Presidium, however, finally takes action, and there is to be a trial of Mundt. In court, Alec holds up that he is a defector, until Mundt’s attorneys bring out Liz, who has been tricked into coming to East Germany because she is a member of the Communist Party. Liz’s testimony is used to establish that Alec is a British spy attempting to sow dissent in East Germany. Both she and Alec are placed in jail again.
That night, they are broken out of jail by Mundt, who it turns out is a British mole. The Circus deliberately used both Leamas and Liz to secure Mundt’s position in the country and instead arrest Feidler. Alec and Liz flee to East Berlin, where they attempt to cross the wall. Alec almost makes it, but Liz is shot and Alec, upon seeing this, stays and is also gunned down.
Uh, so the way this section work is I do what I just did, write out the entire plot, and then I decide which plot I like better based on that.
For this, it’s got to again go to the Sympathizer. The movie production period, specifically, is one of the best conceits of a book—the way the movie mirrors events that happen to the narrator, Man, the arrested spy, and the other Vietnamese characters—that I’ve read in a long time, and because of this I found the revelations of the ending to be more satisfying than those in the Spy Who Came in from the Cold.
With that, the final tally is 2-1 in favor of Viet Thanh Nguyen’s 2015 debut, meaning the Sympathizer advances to the quarter-finals. Fear not, fans of John le Carré, the Karla Trilogy is still in the mix, coming up. But first…
Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell VS Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
Iiiiiiiiiiiiin this corner, we have the 2020 novel by a multi-award winning novelist, a true titan of the modern literary scene, covering the Bard himself and his family life, its subtitle—“a novel of the Plague”—perfectly suited to the global pandemic it was released into, it’s Haaaaaaaaaaaaaaamneeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeet! And in this corner, we have a self-published chapbook of old, Americana personified, the Old Man of American poetry, the work you’ve heard referenced a thousand times but haven’t picked up since high school, that’s right everyone, say it with me: LEAVES! OF! GRAAAAAAAAAASS!!!
Round 1: Plot - MOF’s Score: 6 - WW’s Score: 3
Round 2: Characters - MOF’s Score: 7 - WW’s Score: 3
Round 3: Mass Appeal - MOF’s Score: 9 - WW’s Score: 9
Round 1: Plot; begin!
Hamnet begins with a small little ado about there once being a man, a woman, and three children that all lived in a house in the town of Stratford, England. One of the children, named Hamnet, dies for a historically unknown reason, and 6 years later the father writes the play, “Hamlet.”
That’s pretty much the entire plot. The story cuts back and forth between the past and the present, the present being from the boy Hamnet discovering his twin-sister Judith is sick and attempting to inform his family. Soon the disease is discovered and the family bands together to save little Judith, Judith’s aunt writing to her never-named father while her mother, Agnes, oversees caring for her. No one notices, however, that Hamnet is also sick, until one night he sneaks into bed with Judith, believing he can trick Death into taking him and not his twin. He is successful, and Agnes discovers him dead the next morning. The past storyline follows Agnes and the children’s father meeting each other when he tutors her younger half-brothers in Latin. They eventually fall in love, get married, have three children, and then she sends him to find work in London, where he soon falls in with the theater kids.
After Hamnet’s death, the second, shorter part of the book stops having chapter divides and is exclusively about the present family—Agnes, Judith, the other daughter, the unnamed father—recovering from the death of Hamnet. The husband buys a larger, better house, but not without Agnes realizing he has been with other women. Their relationship is still loving, but stilted. Agnes needs time to recover from her grief, as does her husband. Before long, however, she hears that he has written a play using their son’s name as the title and travels to London with her brother to confront him. She does not find him in his apartment, but learns he is at the theater and goes to see the play. She finds that her husband has recreated their son through the actor, which she realizes is his gift—his ability to render their deceased son as flesh again, to conjure him before their eyes again, to remember him.
Also, there are ghosts and shit.
Leaves of Grass is a book of poetry and so, naturally, doesn’t have anything that I would really describe as a plot. Not gonna lie, my preference is always for fiction novels, so that sometimes means other books are going to get booted, hard. That’s what’s going to happen here with Uncle Walt, sadly. He deserves much better, but not from me.
Round 1 goes to Hamnet, pretty much by default.
Alright, that out of the way, let’s do something that we can really consider a book of poetry on, something that’ll make this a little less one-sided. I believe in you Walt, you’ve got a strong voice in ya, let’s see, now we’re goin—oh… oh no…
Round 2: Characters
In a characters bout, the author’s rendition of one character is held up against one from the other’s. For Hamnet’s first round, we’ll pull out the unnamed husband, father, son, Latin tutor, glove seller, and, finally, playwright. In a lesser hand, an attempt to portray this character could come off as stilted, either too mean or too accommodating, rife with whatever politics the author may or may not be bringing to the piece. O’Farrell’s decision to keep him unnamed carries much of the work it took to keep this a pleasing portrait, but it is the right one. Left unstated, the character that emerges is vain, moody, loving yet painfully wandering, a man struggling to reconcile the stories in his head with the world he’s born into.
There’s really only one character in a poetry book—the poet himself. Decent enough, and more than deserving of his fame.
I’m still, however, going to easily give this to Hamnet.
That’s it then—two rounds and 650 words, Leaves of Grass is eliminated by total knock-out.
I have to admit, I don’t really remember much about the book. I’m probably not giving it that fair of a shake.
Oh well. Who said this was going to be fair?
What an exciting set of matches, eh? And we’re only halfway through! These are long posts, so we’re going to call this an intermission before we continue on. Go stretch you legs. Grab a snack. Pour a beer. Pack a bowl. Eat a mushroom. Snort a line. Drop some acid. Take a booty bump. Whatever your thrill, get it in now. Intermissions only last like, what, 5 minutes? This is reading, so you get to take as long as you need, but longer than 5 minutes is kind of rude, isn’t it? I do have things to do.
The Witcher Series by Andrzej Sapkowski VS The Karla Trilogy by John le Carré
Our first series match-up, excellent. I’m sure it will take me forever to declare a winner.
Round 1: Cover - TWScore: 1 - TKTcore: 10
Alright, so as I’ve said, these are both series. Their scores in each category were how I felt about the series in general, but for these bouts we’re only going to consider one from each. That being said, I’m going to find the best Witcher cover I can and then just go with the cover I have for the first book in the Karla Trilogy, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.
“Axeman,” I can hear you axing, “I don’t understand the point of this category. You’ve already made this joke, but there’s literally a saying, ‘don’t judge a book by its cover.’ But it’s not just that—books can have many covers, with different translations and editions and audiobook versions and rereleases once a movie or show or even a new book in the series comes out. Why you do this?”
While the actual text of a book is a separate thing from the cover, a book is still not a book without a cover—even if there is no cover at all, its absence is notable. The experience of reading a book is wound up in how it is presented. To judge a book solely by what is written in it is to deny the existence of your eyes, of your hands that hold and feel, of your mind’s delight in color and variance.
Now, that isn’t to say you should judge the author by the cover—even if cover’s so often make the author their most important feature. The work of art that is a book is a group effort, mainly of author, cover artist, and designer. (There is also such a thing as an ‘editor,’ but most of them don’t actually do anything). (Okay, I want to amend that, but this whole thing doesn’t need to turn into a diatribe about editors. There are, by and large, two types of editors: the first labors over the book by cleaning up the author’s grammar (often called copyediting) or message (often called content editing) (don’t be confused by my separating that out into two types, they’re basically the same thing (grammar is content)); the second guides the book as a whole through the Kafkaesque bureaucracy of publishing, ideally into your waiting hands for your eager little eyes to gobble up. For money, too—that’s an important thing for this second group. For the purposes of this category, the second group is probably more consequential, but really the category where this group reigns supreme is Mass Appeal. Okay, mini editor rant done, continuing on.) Your experience of reading the book is, whether you believe it or not, inexorably linked with how you feel about the cover.
All of which is to say, the Karla Trilogy covers blow any Witcher cover out of the water. They reflect a modern sensibility (abstract, barely illustrative of the plot) and accurately portray the busy, rich, teeming worlds that Le Carré creates. And they still retain simplicity, especially in the palette. It is an exercise in style. They prepare you for the book you are about to read. This one shown here is, by my estimate, the second best of the three.
This is not the cover of any Witcher book that I read. Mine all used cartoonish, cgi characters from the video game, or else had pictures of actors from the show. This is the cover of a Polish edition from the year 2000, before the games were made and became the cultural touchstone they are today, before, even, when many of the books were even translated into English. It shares much of the same sensibilities of the TKT cover, including a strict and effective coherence to style, but the porny illustration would make my cheeks red if I tried to read it on a subway.
First round, cover, goes to the Karla Trilogy.
Round 2: Plot - TWScore: 4 - TKTcore: 2
Similar to covers, we’ll only go over the plot of one book each for this bout, and we’ll go with the books we discussed in cover as well—Baptism of Fire because after losing the first round the Witcher can’t hold anything back, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy because the Karla Trilogy knows it can’t let up.
Like in the show, most chapters in the Witcher Series follow either Geralt, Ciri, or Yennefer. In Baptism of Fire, all three have just been separated from each other by the “Thanedd Incident,” an attempted coup that resulted in Ciri traveling through a magic portal to a desert, Geralt grievously injured, and Yennefer turned into a small jewel. Yennefer spends much of the book in this state until her captor/savior turns her back and offers her a spot in the newly forming Lodge of Sorceresses, an all-female council of mages. Yennefer is non-committal, instead escaping with the help of another sorceress to search for Ciri, though where she goes is not made clear in this book.
Ciri, likewise, has a shortened story. After surviving in the desert for a time with the help of a black unicorn, the unicorn is slain by a mysterious blue knight and Ciri captured. Ciri’s captors are then killed for unrelated reasons and Ciri escapes, falling in with a group of fabulously dressed thieves called the Rats. She saves one in a bar, falls in love with another, and they all have a grand old time murdering and thieving around the region.
Geralt wakes in Brokilon forest, his wounds tended. The dryads assign Milva, an expert archer, to guide him and the bard Dandelion from Brokilon. Milva decides too to follow Geralt, forming the core power-trio of the 5-man band this book builds. The rest of the band is rounded out first by Cahir, Nilfgaardian exile, who Geralt and Milva free from a band of kidnappers. Geralt originally tries to send Cahir off, but Cahir follows at a distance. Eventually he and Geralt confront their differences, with help from Milva, and Cahir joins the band. Concurrent with this, the band encounters Regis, who originally claims to be a doctor but is eventually revealed to be a higher Vampire—meaning, he passes for human in most instances, has the ability to turn invisible, can fly, is immortal, is not repelled by garlic, can eat regular food, can go about in the day, and does not drink.
The five-man band aimlessly searches for Ciri, having no idea where she is but hearing she might be in Nilfgaard. On the road, they also come across a band of dwarves led by Zoltan Chivay, who are escorting a group of women and children, refugees of the war that are the novels’ backdrop. This large group, swelling and shrinking throughout the novel (at one point, the refugees come across another group of refugees and the women and children are reunited with their husbands, leaving the dwarves behind, then the band is separated from the dwarves, and then the band and dwarves reunite, the dwarves escorting a new band of women and children to safety), travels the length of the Yeruga river, finding pillaged villages and corrupt priests holding witch hunts in refugee camps, merciless armies and monsters bent on destruction. They work together to survive, healing each other’s wounds, listening to each other’s stories.
During the journey, Milva discovers she is pregnant and struggles with what to do about it on the road. Her four male companions agree that she has the choice of what to do, but agree privately that they’ll each take part in helping to raise the child should she choose to have it. Cahir is wracked with guilt for his part in the war-torn landscape around them, a former soldier of the occupier now directly faced with the suffering he caused. Nor does he know how to be trusted, since he cannot undo his previous crimes, including those that directly hurt his traveling companions and their loved ones. Regis is a recovering addict—blood, for his kind of vampire, is akin to alcohol; unnecessary for survival, but generative of a euphoric rush, a loosening of reality; socially acceptable, yet clearly a negative influence on his life, so much so that he has chosen to abstain altogether. Geralt broods for the daughter he cannot find, his child of destiny, his one shot at being a father. He loses his famous witcher swords—one steel, one silver, both for monsters—and, around the campfire one night, admits that he has no idea where he’s actually from, that his name, “Geralt of Rivia,” is just a combination he thought sounded cool. He’s never even been to Rivia. Dandelion begins work on his autobiography.
Near the end of the book, Zoltan and his crew depart for the last time, making for Mahakam, the city of dwarves. As a parting gift, Zoltan gives Geralt his sihil, a dwarven sword of the finest make, with runes carved into the blade that read, “Death to the fuckers.” Geralt and company attempt a crossing of the Yeruga on a ferry, but are swept downstream into he midst of a full pitched battle for a bridge. Under attack, Geralt and his band have no choice but to join the fight, choosing to aide a battalion of local peasants hold the bridge against Nilfgaardian cavalry. Milva is gravely injured. Dandelion and Regis stay to tend to her while Cahir and Geralt lead a charge across the bridge, through fire, breaking the Nilfgaard line and winning the battle. Geralt, given credit for saving the bridge, is brought before the commander of the army—the Queen of Rivia, who, only knowing that Geralt won the battle, knights him then and there—Sir Geralt of Rivia.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy follows recently-forced-into-retirement and long-suffering George Smiley, spook. He has a brief encounter with one Roddy Martindale at their club where much of the book’s original premise is laid out—Control is dead, the Circus is under the leadership of Percy Alleline and his collaborators—Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase, and Bill Haydon—and the Circus is still trucking on despite Control and Smiley’s monumental fuck-up leading to their retirements. The monumental fuck-up was their sending a spy, Jim Prideaux, into the Czech Republic to kidnap a Soviet General. Smiley, who actually had no part in the fuck-up, being in Germany at the time, eventually gives Roddy the shake and winds up back at home, expecting no one to be there since his wife, Ann, has recently begun an affair with a violinist. He is surprised, however, that Peter Guillam, also a spook, has broken into his home and is waiting for him. Guillam brings Smiley to the home of Oliver Lacon—some sort of Minister of Spying, or something—who is waiting with Ricki Tarr, another spook. (I think that’s all the names we need, and you can forget Roddy Martindale, he doesn’t show up again until book 3. There are more characters, but for what actually occurs this is all we need—and let’s be real, it’s too many.)
Tarr is being held in Lacon’s home because he is a wanted man. He’s been missing for several months. He explains to the three that he is in hiding because he recently recruited a Russian defector in Cairo who claimed to know that there was a mole in the upper ranks of the British Secret Service and that this mole reported directly to Karla, a near-mythic upper-level member of the KGB. Tarr cabled the Circus, saying more than he should have despite the defector’s insistence that he doesn’t. The Circus essentially replied with, “brb” and ghosted Tarr, immediately after which the defector disappears and the Circus issues orders for Tarr’s arrest, claiming he murdered the defector’s husband. Tarr goes into hiding. The defector, it will soon be learned, was taken to Lubyanka Prison in Moscow and shot.
Lacon asks Smiley to discover who the mole is, giving him Guillam, who still has access to the Circus. Smiley and Guillam set up a remote safe-house where Smiley can pour over Circus documents, which Guillam retrieves through careful subterfuge. Smiley also interviews several former agents of the Circus, all forced into retirement around the same time as Smiley, including Jim Prideaux, crippled from his time with the Czech, now a teacher at a boys boarding school somewhere in the country. Finally, Smiley descends into the depths of his own memory, filling in the gaps of the story with what was forbidden to know or no one else could have possibly known. With Guillam as his sounding board, Smiley puts together a storyline.
Jim Prideaux was sent to the Czech Republic by Control, who thought he had a lead on the identity of the mole many throughout the Circus clearly felt existed. Prideaux was to meet with a General, a potential defector, who would have the name of this mole, which Control believed to be 1 of 5 men—Percy Alleline, Roy Bland, Toby Esterhase, Bill Haydon, or George Smiley. Prideaux and Control decided together on a code word for each man, which he was to learn from the General as soon as possible and get through to Control. Before he leaves, Prideaux confides to Bill Haydon about the mission. Things go bad; Prideaux is shot and captured. In London, Control, who has a trusted man on the radios, gets the news and goes into catatonic shock. Not knowing what to do, the man calls George Smiley’s house, speaks to Ann, and soon after Bill Haydon shows up to help control the situation. Much of this implicates Haydon, but George knows that Haydon also has an alibi, an explanation for all this—he was, at the time, having an affair with Ann, George’s wife and Bill’s cousin. He was at Smiley’s house, occupied, so both could not have been the leak of Prideaux’s mission and had a reason for being the first to know.
Smiley knows he must catch the mole in the act. Through his investigations, he learns there is a safe house in London used by Alleline, Bland, Esterhase, and Haydon for Operation Witchcraft—a KGB mole, known as Source Merlin, that supplies reliable information about the movements of the Soviet Military. All four regularly meet with Merlin, but Smiley suspects that one of these is, in fact, the English mole, feeding more important and damaging information back to the Soviets through Merlin. Through Lacon, Smiley and his team are given access to the safe house. They set up recording devices and wait. To spring their trap, Ricki Tarr is released to Paris, where he holds up the British embassy and demands to speak to Alleline. As they suspected, the English mole appears to meet with Merlin, a Soviet Cultural Attaché. The recordings capture damning statements between the two, Smiley and Guillam appear, and it turns out the mole is Bill Haydon.
The plot in the heart of the Circus uncovered, Smiley replaces Alleline as top honcho. They intend to trade Haydon back to Moscow, where he will live out his days as a hero of Communism—until he is mysteriously murdered in Circus custody.
Drum-roll please while the judges deliberate the results…
The Witcher. It was a close one—TTSS is a classic, the spy-novelists spy-novel, an exercise in slowly, methodically unwinding a mystery through dense, purplish details and meandering dialogue. But, ultimately, the mole reveal is a little more obvious than the book makes it out to be, insistent as everyone is that it could never be sweet golden boy Bill Haydon. Baptism of Fire may have a less consequential plot overall—Geralt literally spends the whole book going in the wrong direction—but this is a sacrifice in favor of character development and pacing, bringing the book to a satisfying close not a moment too early or late.
That puts our score at all tied up. It’s all down to the politics, a category we’ve not discussed yet that takes the form of a legal proceeding. Since this is the final round, it will be the closing arguments of the two sides lawyers.
Round 3: Politics - TWScore: 8 - TKTcore: 7
Attorney for the Witcher: Your Honor, theydies and gentlethems of the jury, I shall make my closing arguments simple. In Baptism of Fire there is a scene were several of the characters sit around a campfire and all agree their female companion has the right to an abortion, that it is ridiculous that they should even have to ask. The best anyone can say about the Karla Trilogy is that its main character, George Smiley, spends pretty much the entire series staring at himself in the mirror saying, “Am I the baddie?” We submit to your humble opinion that he, in fact, is, and that it is not enough that he asks the question since all his actions do nothing to change his ‘baddie-ness.’ I rest my case.
Attorney for the Karla Trilogy: [redacted]
After seventeen hours of deliberation, the jury returned a universal verdict in favor of the Witcher, advancing it to the quarterfinals.
The end is in sight, folks. Obviously I have a lot to say. Somebody should give me a blog or something, sheeeesh.
Last up, we have a translated fairytale adaptation going up against a book from Japan.
The Hole by Hiroko Oyamada VS The Green Knight
Round 1: Memorability - Hole: 4 - TGK: 9
Round 2: Plot - Hole: 5 - TGK: 4
Round 3: Cover - Hole: 8 - TGK: 8
Alright, this has been going a long time and let’s be real, if I want to finish the 2021 Championship before the end of 2022, I’m going to have to step up the pace a bit here.
Memorability: The Hole’s strengths are not in any specific moment or its ability to create significant images. It’s a subtle, sensory experience. The Green Knight, a movie made for the silver screen, literally swims in memorable moments. I’m going to stick with my original scores here and give it to the Green Knight.
Plot: If I’m going to stick with my original scores that succinctly for round 1, I’m going to do it for round 2. The Green Knight’s plot, let’s be honest, is fairly simple, and while the two sequences where it occurs are well-shot, I am not a fan of ‘what could have happened’ as a plot point, especially one as extended as the second. The Hole ekes it out because the plot, while also a bit simplistic, clearly goes somewhere and isn’t self-conscious about why it did.
All tied up going into round 3, Covers, to which I gave both an 8.
“Wait a minute,” I can hear you thinking. “One of these is a movie. Movies don’t have covers.”
True. I’m going with one of the movie posters (I think it’s the first one I saw, way back when this was supposed to come out in 2020).
Both of these have a lot going for them. Simple, neat, vibrant—they catch the eye for opposite reasons. If I have to give it to one, though—ugh, it’s going to have to be the Green Knight again. God damnit! The movies were supposed to be eliminated in the first round! The Hole cover is just a little too monotone, and I don’t like the font. The Green Knight poster isn’t perfect, but the start contrast between the red and yellow along with the visually stimulating foregrounded Dev Patel does more for me than the twisting, windblown grass, pleasing as it is.
With that, our last match of the Western bracket round 1. Tune in next time for the Eastern brackets—will there be an upset? There certainly wasn’t for this round.
Did I make any decisions you think are blatantly wrong? Are there books you think I should have read you’d like to see on the 2022 bracket? Don’t—ever—EVER—hesitate to tell me.