The Patriot Meme

POSTED: January 6, 2020

I have started reading Smiley’s People by John Le Carré which I obtained sometime ago from somewhere. It emerged from a box or cupboard while Irma searched for something else entirely; and then sat in a basket trying to catch my attention.
I think I got it cheap or free and then noticed the claim on the back that it constituted the third part of an unnamed trilogy; one that began with Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and continued with The Honorable Schoolboy. I put it down, hoping to find the other two novels and read them in sequence.

I have abandoned that practice now.

The story concerns (at least as far as I have so far read) a group of old men who comprise the remnants of Baltic and Estonian opposition groups, still fighting to free their homelands from occupation by the USSR.

While reading this I found myself back at Keele as a student and thinking about Mick whose surname I can no longer recall. I think of him as a friend of Harry Kent, and of Andrew, who went out with Frances before Gra did.

I remember that Mick’s family came from the Ukraine, although he had lived in Leeds since birth. I remember him giving long, impassioned, stoned speeches about how Ukraine would become a free state once again within his lifetime. And how he would dedicate his life to assisting this process.

I remember that I could not understand at all why he would say such things, why he would believe them, about a place he had never seen. I remember a feeling of complete puzzlement.

In Chapter 10 of Smiley’s People Le Carré writes:

“He was a leader, Max, he was a hero”, Mikhel declared. “We must try to profit from his courage and example.” He paused as if expecting Smiley to write this down for publication. “In such cases it is natural to ask oneself how one can possibly carry on. Who is worthy to follow him? Who has his stature, his honour, his sense of destiny? Fortunately our movement is a continuing process. It is greater than any one individual, even than any one group.”

Wendell Berry has written about how all human beings get born into a place, a piece of land, as much as into a family. People grow belonging to a land and a culture, and learn a way of interacting with that land that never leaves them. Perhaps my memory of Mick points towards an important exception to this.

If “we are stories all the way down” then Mick’s life demonstrates that stories of a land-where-I-belong may serve very powerfully as a replacement, a stand-in, for the land itself. Mick may never, at the point that I knew him, have glimpsed Ukraine, but he had grown into himself with a deep and detailed knowledge of the look and the feeling of belonging to the story of Ukraine.

For most people throughout recorded history we can agree with Wendell Berry: they grow into a land where they will always feel at home. For some, though, they will, through no fault of their own, have to grow into the idea of a land where they truly belong.

This has consequences.