From John Le Carre's Smiley's People:

At a crucial moment, an unknown man turned round and looked at me and I hung an entire history on him, even imagining he was my dying father.

Background: "I" refer to the young man acting as a courier for the general. The "unknown man" was sent by the general to get the picture and deliver that via the young man.

My understanding was that the picture was so important that it might alter history, which depended on that unknown man.

  • 1
    The unknown man is like a hanger on which the young hangs a history, not a coat or shirt. ["I" refers] Also, to hang something on someone in colloquial English means: to ascribe something to someone.
    – Lambie
    Mar 3 at 18:39
  • @Lambie So what does "history" means exactly here? Does that mean the young man's personal past or something else? Mar 3 at 21:28
  • a person's background, his or her history. What's your history exactly? Have you always been an X?
    – Lambie
    Mar 3 at 21:29
  • @Lambie still it does not make much sense to me. Why the young man felt like his personal history was determined by or linked with that unknown man? I don't quite get it. Mar 3 at 23:05
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    I thought you were asking Lambie whether I was a native speaker. The sentence appears to be the first reference to the imaginary past history, so I wouldn't expect it to have been mentioned before. The pronouns make it clear who is 'hanging' the history on whom. Mar 4 at 17:24

2 Answers 2


The young man ("I")says that when he first saw the "unknown man" he imagined a complete past history (life story) for him. The pronouns I and him make it clear who is doing the "hanging".


The unknown man, who we will later learn is named Otto Leipzig, has a striking appearance that gives him a sort of aura of mystery. (Madame Ostrakova gives him the nickname “the Magician.”) He exchanges this look with Max, and Max is inspired to imagine a background story for this mysterious man.

(There are several places in the Smiley novels where perception and imagination set the spies apart from ordinary people, and this is one of them.)

  • I agree. But this kind of imagination sometimes seems far-fetched, not very logical, and confusing. Mar 4 at 13:35

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