"The Secret Pilgrim," British spymaster John LeCarre's thirteenth book, was published in 1990, a year after the Berlin Wall was torn down, and the 30-year long Cold War was declared at an end. It was his first published post Cold War novel. LeCarre, who penned the Cold War masterpieces The Spy Who Came in from the Cold
; and the Karla trilogy,Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy
,The Honourable Schoolboy
, and Smiley's People
, uses this book, several short stories cobbled together, that begin as the looming Berlin Wall has been up only two years, as a magisterial summing-up of the war that was.
The author sets much of it, as is his long-standing custom, in his German-speaking comfort zone, particularly Berlin, "the spy's eternal city," he calls it. The book is narrated by "Ned," a shrewd and loyal long-term employee of LeCarre's fictional intelligence service, modeled on the real one. Here, as elsewhere, LeCarre calls this service the circus, from its London location. Ned is currently teaching new recruits at Sarratt, its spy school, and contemplating retirement. He's thinking about the secret pilgrimage of his life, spent in the service, wondering, as is typical of the author, what it has gained him, or the world. He invites the "eminence grise" of the circus, George Smiley, to speak to the recruits.
The book is episodic; that may annoy some people. But it has LeCarre's usual writerly virtues, unbeaten spycraft, strong descriptive and narrative writing, complex, if brief, plotlets. Resonant characters and dialogue, a sturdy moral context. It is written in flashback, so the action may be a bit bloodless for some. But it gives an informative summation of the Smiley-Karla years. "Before the fall, " as the circus calls it, when Bill Haydon, its secret counterspy, mole in the terminology LeCarre created, is still burrowing from within. And "after the fall," picking up the pieces. And it offers new views of the circus's great knights: Smiley and his unfaithful wife Ann, Haydon, Peter Guillam, Tobe Esterhase. To Le Carre fans, it's all catnip. We even get an unexpected bonus: Ned is apparently the desk jockey who ran Barley Blair, star of The Russia House
: think Sean Connery. Ned reminisces about Blair, "We were trying to do a deal on him, but Barley wouldn't go along with us. He'd done his own deal already. He wanted his girl, not us."
Several of the component short stories are particularly memorable. An early one about Ben Arno Cavendish, Ned's oldest friend, who joins the circus with him and thereafter makes a little mistake with terrible consequences. A later one about the Lithuanian Captain Brandt and his beautiful girlfriend Bella -- also Ned's. A tale about Colonel Jerzy, high-ranking Pole, who finds his own way to Ned. And Hansen, the big, fair Scandinavian, active in Indochina during the Vietnam war: Ned says Hansen, deep in the Cambodian jungle, is his own Kurz, communicating from his own heart of darkness. Finally, there's Frewin, lonely Foreign Office cipher clerk, with all security clearances; seduced into Russia's service by the language lessons of Boris and Olga on early morning radio. This is the war that was, indeed.