Title: The Secret Pilgrim
Author: John le Carré
Le Carré, John (1991, 2008). The Secret Pilgrim. New York: Ballantine Books
PR6062.E33 S43 2008
Date Posted: April 5, 2017
Review by William Boyd
This fine novel takes the form of a reverie-memoir, a series of reflections on a long life in the espionage business recalled by a surnameless man called Ned. Readers of John le Carré will have encountered Ned before—in The Russia House—and The Secret Pilgrim consists largely of his reminiscences of his career as a British spy during the 40-odd years of the Cold War. Now on the verge of retirement, Ned is running Sarratt, the training school for new recruits to British intelligence. He invites the legendary George Smiley to address the impending graduates and, after dinner, the night is whiled away as the next generation of spies picks the brains of a past master. As Smiley responds to their questions, allusions and remarks that he makes trigger Ned’s recollections about his own past.
Thus the novel is an intriguing amalgam of meditation, fictive autobiography and numerous spy stories. In fact, there are seven key episodes in Ned’s life that he relates to us, all of which take place in familiar le Carré locations—Hamburg, Munich, London, Beirut, the Far East—and which also chart the historical course of espionage through the second half of the 20th century.
There are successes and failures, frustrations and revelations. Ned’s best friend and fellow student in his first posting as a spy inadvertently and clumsily exposes an entire network and runs for cover. Ned tracks him down and—equally inadvertently—leads Smiley to the guilty man. Ned beds the concupiscent girlfriend of one of his key agents in Hamburg, the better to interrogate her. In Warsaw, a Polish spymaster turns double agent. In Bangkok, a spy cracks up. And so on. The stories rehearse familiar le Carré tropes with no loss of skill and atmosphere and no diminution of pleasure as we re-encounter figures from previous novels—the great, inscrutable Smiley, flashy Toby Esterhase and, the coolest of traitors, Bill Haydon.
As we revisit the murky corners of the Cold War, so too there emerges a conspectus and resume of Mr. le Carré’s enduring and vivid fictional version of it: the Circus, Moscow Centre, the lamplighters, the sandbaggers, the embittered dons, the seedy emigres, the compromised values of fundamentally honorable men in a fundamentally dishonorable profession. The many ingredients are skillfully marshaled: story elides into story; flashback and flash-forward, reminiscence, analysis and prognosis are lucidly and elegantly controlled. Indeed, The Secret Pilgrim is, technically, Mr. le Carré’s most magisterial accomplishment.
Ned’s narrative voice, too, is finely modulated. It is wry and sagacious, cynical and worldly, yet its privileged perspective on the past still allows Ned’s youthful zeal and enthusiasm, his hot triumphs and potent disappointments, their full vigorous expression. Ned also shares with his author a brand of romanticism that is unashamedly overt and that extends further than affairs of the heart. We tend to think of the le Carré world as gray and hard-boiled, a domain of sordid betrayals and a kind of dogged middle-class, well-educated ruthlessness, but there has always been a whiff of romance in the atmosphere, however polluted. It accommodates elegant, intelligent women and decent chaps, as well as high ideals and genuine convictions. It’s a strain that, in The Secret Pilgrim, breaks out here and there in almost indecent lushness:
“I have no picture of our leavetaking, so I expect it was too painful and my memory has rejected it. . . . I remember the salt of her tears and the smell of her hair as I hurried through the night wind, and the black clouds writhing round the moon and the thump of the sea as I skirted the rocky bay.”
The world of Mr. le Carré’s novels may seem sui generis, but it is at moments like this that we catch strong echoes of its literary precursors—Joseph Conrad, John Buchan and P. C. Wren.
There is a valedictory tone in this book that is not wholly caused by Ned’s approaching retirement. The Cold War is over, the old enemies have been replaced by glasnost and perestroika, and for Mr. le Carré himself it must have been a bizarre experience to see the raw material of his art disintegrate over the last few years. But the spies, we can be sure, will never be made redundant. At the end of the novel, decent, honorable Ned encounters a particularly nasty specimen of the new antagonists—an utterly cynical and amoral British millionaire entrepreneur and arms dealer, and a knight, to boot. He is a perfect embodiment of the so-called market forces dogma of the Thatcher years in its most brutish form. “Now we had defeated Communism, we were going to have to set about defeating capitalism,” Ned reflects. One senses a new foe emerging, new battles for the Circus to fight.
SMILEY’S NEW JOB
Toby Esterhase came down to Sarratt to give us his celebrated talk on the arts of clandestine surveillance. . . . And I heard myself trailing Smiley’s name. . . . “Oh look here, my God, Ned!” Toby cried in his incurably Hungarian English. . . . “You mean you haven’t heard?”
“Heard what?” I asked patiently.
“My dear fellow, George is chairing the Fishing Rights Committee. . . .”
“Perhaps you’d tell me . . . what the Fishing Rights Committee is,” I suggested.
“Ned, you know what? I think I get nervous. Maybe they took you off the list.” . . .
He told me anyway, as I knew he would, and I duly acted astonished, which gave him an even greater sense of his importance. And there is a part of me that remains astonished to this day. The Fishing Rights Committee, Toby explained for the benefit of the unblessed, was an informal working party made up of officers from Moscow Centre and the Circus. Its job, said Toby—who I really believe had lost any capacity to be surprised—was to identify intelligence targets of interest to both services and thrash out a system of sharing. “The idea actually, Ned, was to target the world’s trouble spots,” he said with an air of maddening superiority. — “I think they fix first the Middle East.”
From The Secret Pilgrim.
“I WAS HEARTILY SICK OF IT”
LONDON — George Smiley, Toby Esterhase and all the rest of the familiar pantheon of John le Carré spies have been “definitely put to rest” in The Secret Pilgrim, according to David Cornwell, the 59-year-old author who invented them all under his famous pseudonym.
“I was heartily sick of the Cold War and seriously concerned about how I’d get any more juice out of it,” he confessed in an interview in his office in Hampstead, England. He wouldn’t say what the subject of his next book—which he planned to start working on at the beginning of January—would be, but said he had no fear that the espionage genre was in danger of dying out.
“Anybody writing now will have to work a little harder and think a little harder, but the world’s his oyster,” he said, pointing out the rise of hard-line opposition to President Mikhail S. Gorbachev and the resignation of Eduard A. Shevardnadze as Foreign Minister in the Soviet Union, the crisis in the Persian Gulf, industrial espionage and the struggle against the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as just a few of the pearls now cast before aspiring novelists.
“To say the spy writer has had his toys taken away from him is ridiculous,” he said. Worrying as intensely as Smiley or the legendary Connie Sachs did about their babies, Mr. le Carré frets over his own now: how the movie made from his last novel, The Russia House, is being received is one major recent preoccupation, and the screenplay he wrote for his early novel A Murder of Quality is another.
The Secret Pilgrim, he acknowledges, is a summation of how futile and wasteful 40 years of Cold War espionage really were. In the end, it was not spies but Mr. Gorbachev and the ordinary people of Eastern Europe who laid Stalinism low.
Where things go from here is no clearer to this master of the secret world than to the rest of us. “It would be absolutely tragic,” he said, “if the vision of the two superpowers finally making common cause to solve all the great problems of the world had to crumble, just as we really need it.”
But if he had been President, he says, he wouldn’t have handled the Persian Gulf crisis any differently from the way George Bush has. “The United States doesn’t realize it’s the only superpower,” Mr. le Carré said. “We had that position in the last days of our empire, but the United States is genuinely more high-minded about its responsibilities.”
Comments by Craig R. Whitney
 William Boyd, “Oh, What a Lovely Cold War,” New York Times (January 6, 1991), downloaded April 5, 2017. William Boyd’s novels include An Ice-Cream War, A Good Man in Africa and The New Confessions.