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VINE VOICEon 4 September 2006
I was given this book as a birthday present, otherwise I probably never would have read it, since I am not a fan of spy fiction (other than the kind that appears in the factual espionage genre). I am very glad, however, that I did read it.

"The Secret Pilgrim" represents the best of both worlds, since it is actually a dozen short stories tied together within the framework of a novel. The latter depicts George Smiley, the Old Cold Warrior, acting as guest lecturer to a group of young "Circus" recruits, who are learning their tradecraft from one of his old pupils, Ned (who is himself about to retire). Each of Smiley's topics during the lecture and the conversation afterwards triggers Ned's memories and, therefore, his reminiscences about old cases.

The short stories serve as an excellent introduction to the author's earlier works, since Ned, in his adventures, has dealt with the likes of Bill Haydon, Toby Esterhaze, and Percy Alleline, as well as George Smiley--all of whom make cameo appearances. The tales are entertaining, witty, and wholly absorbing, as one gradually learns that the narrator is the pilgrim of the title on a quest to discover why he ever entered the secret world in the first place. Once he had imagined himself as a dragon slayer, who would leave the world in a "safer place." Now, however, that rampant Communism has been replaced by rampant Capitalism, the narrator, in the last chapter, wonders whether the right people have won, noting that "the evil was not in the system, but in the man."

"The Secret Pilgrim" is set in a very different world from the original Smiley books. George Smiley is now presiding over the "Fishing Rights Committee," a joint effort between the intelligence services of London and Moscow.

How Kim Philby would have approved!.
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"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.
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on 19 October 2002
This book comprises what, at first sight, seem to be a set of short stories. In fact, the stories are linked, in part by a narrative structure and in part by the presence of George Smiley, brought out of retirement to make an after-dinner speech to a bunch of new spooks.
Much of Circus history is revisited, including the mole-hunting era of Tinker, Tailor etc. New angles and insights are revealed and old motivations seen in new lights.
It goes without saying that the writing style is fluid, intelligent and engaging. [If anything, too engaging-it is all too easy to read just one more story....]
Enthusiasts for the earlier history of Smiley and his associates will delight in this book. I'm not entirely sure that newcomers will find it quite such an accessible read: some background has to be assumed to avoid repetition.
Highly recommended.
Bill
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on 18 February 2007
The Berlin Wall came down in 1989 and this book was first published a year later. Back then it was believed that as the Cold War was over, the spying espionage novel was finished. Redundant. Passé.

Of course that wasn't the case, the world's second oldest profession was never going to go as quietly as that, and so it proved. Today in 2007, the intelligence services are busier than ever.

The Secret Pilgrim centres on George Smiley's retirement, and the progress of his protégé, Ned. In many ways it is not a single book at all, but a collection of flashback stories set in such varied locations as Estonia, Israel and Lebanon, and Thailand and Cambodia. The individual stories come in varying degrees of intensity, and many of the images it brought to my mind lived with me long after I had set the book down. Some of them I will never forget. Is this the true test of a novel's power?

Dame Stella Rimington, the former head of Britain's intelligence services, the first woman to hold the post, and the first person ever to hold the post whilst known to the public, stated recently that John Le Carré, of all the espionage writers, painted the most accurate pictures of her times in the service. It is not difficult to believe, and The Secret Pilgrim will not disappoint any espionage aficionados, though you don't have to be such a buff, to glean enjoyment from this work.

I have always preferred Mister le Carré's earlier works, of which this just about is. I found it an easy book to read, hard to put down, easy to follow, (not always the case in this genre) and well worth the effort in returning to his back catalogue. I suspect spy books are set for a comeback, something that will suit Mister le Carré admirably. I thoroughly enjoyed it, but then I would. I'm hooked you see. Give it a try. Codebook anyone?
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on 12 March 1999
Having read most of JLC's books, this one has a unique effect on me. A series of anecdotal stories, perhaps, connected by a thread summarised by Ned's and Smiley's reflections at the close. Great insight into the real motivation of a spy, and those entrapped in the world of espionage. Wonderfully read, compelling, funny, compassionate and angry.
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on 1 August 2014
One of the things that elevates John Le Carré above other thriller writers is his willingness to play with the conventions of both the genre and his own back catalogue in order to meet the requirements of his themes. Whilst other authors fall into repeating comfortable styles and tropes, Le Carré’s output constantly mutates. There are fixed points within the world of the Circus but the perspective is constantly changing.

The Secret Pilgrim is a great example of this. Ostensibly, it is a series of short stories linked through the device of George Smiley giving an address to a group of espionage trainees and their tutor, Ned. Covering the sweep of Smiley’s career, the book is a celebratory review of Le Carré’s greatest creation and a final full stop as he retires the character along with the Cold War. More than this, it provides an opportunity to revisit many of the themes he explored through Smiley; the efficacy and value of spying, the real value of sacrificing individual lives and souls and the relative merit of ideology. Added to this are increasingly relevant questions about whether the price of winning the Cold War was worth paying; not least since it let slip the specter of carnivorous capitalism.

A final rummage around East Berlin, the post-imperial Far-East and beyond brings Smiley’s story to a satisfying close. He is now a relic of the cold war brought out only to satisfy the curiosity of former enemies in Moscow, who view this quiet, strange old man with awe and trepidation. Meanwhile, Ned finds himself treading the same path as his former teacher, growing increasingly aware of the futility but necessity of espionage and his role in it.

This is not a good book to first meet Smiley. Without the weight of the Karla trilogy and others, the characters and places carry far less meaning. Of course, it is an effective series of espionage vignettes but these are magnified when it is read as a coda of (probably) the finest series of thrillers written during the latter half of the twentieth century.

Le Carré is a master of thriller tension but artfully balances it against strong characterisation and themes that expand out beyond the secret world to include more fundamental questions about society. The pseudo short story format is probably less engaging than his more integrated novels but, nevertheless, any opportunity to spend time with George Smiley is time well spent.
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VINE VOICEon 23 January 2012
Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
John le Carre's The Secret Pilgrim is a trio of audio CDs totalling nearly three hours of original BBC drama first broadcast in 2010 on BBC Radio 4.

The book has been dramatised for radio by Robert Forrest, who has taken this le Carre classic and turned it into an engaging and entertaining listen. Talented stage actor Simon Russell Beale is George Smiley while TV's Patrick Malahide is Ned. Set in the early post cold war period the story is presented as a series of reminiscences by Ned, prompted by comments made by Smiley during a series of lectures to Ned's trainee spy students. Expertly scripted, the reminiscences are in effect a collection of short stories.

The dramatisation is a typical top-notch and blemish-free BBC effort and the actors have been well chosen, resulting in an eminently listenable audio book. The episodic nature of the story makes it an ideal companion for short journeys as it does for long. This is definitely not a reading of the book by multiple voices - you'd be hard pushed to read the book in three hours - but does not suffer for it. Be aware that this book features Smiley only in passing - the main focus is on Ned and the episodes that he recalls.

In summary this CD is, like the other BBC Smiley dramatisations, of high quality and good value for money. If you are new to Smiley (perhaps through last year's release of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) then this is an excellent way to become more familiar with his world.
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This is a wonderful collection of vignettes that flow from the memory of Ned, serving in his last assignment for the British intelligence service as the director of a training school for novice agents. The visit of the iconic Le Carre character, George Smiley, as a guest speaker at the school sets Ned to thinking about his own long career in espionage. It has been a career of unique adventures, some successes, many failtures, but most of all, a life full of unique characters.

"The Secret Pilgrim" , though far from a linear action novel, has a beautiful flow and richness to it that surpasses even some of Le Carre's better known books--most of whom share those admirable qualities. Throughout this reminiscence, the reader feels connected at the hip with Ned and his former mentor/boss, George Smiley, as their achievements and failures are chronicled. There is a characteristic honesty and candor here about the frequent impurity of national purpose and equally frequent betrayals and cynical use of friends and allies. It all smacks of authenticity and should make all of us wonder about what our own government might be up to and why at this moment and certainly in the past 50 years.

This is a lovely book that only enhances (for me, at least), the attractiveness and enjoyment of John Le Carre's writing. Recommended.
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on 16 July 2011
I normally love le Carre but this book left me feeling slightly disappointed. Individually, the short stories are interesting enough and I especially liked the one with the mysterious Bella. However, I was looking for something more that linked the stories together. This never came or else I missed it.
This book is definitely worth reading if you enjoy the spy/Cold War genre and I will probably return to it after a few months and give it another go.
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Format: Audio CD|Vine Customer Review of Free Product( What's this? )
For anyone who struggles, for whatever reason, with the written
word audiobooks can be a joy and a revelation (for those who just
want to sit back, close our eyes and be just plain lazy once
in a while equally so!)

A radio adaptation of John le Carre's novel 'The Secret Pilgrim'
could have been a tough call for all those involved. Auntie Beeb,
however, is as competent as ever in bringing Mr le Carre's work
to vivid life in the listening world. This is another winner!

Robert Forest's dramatisation of this particularly episodic
narrative is masterfully realised by producer Patrick Rayner
and his very fine cast. Simon Russell Beale seems to have made
Smiley his own in this series (his performance in 'The Honorable
Schoolboy' in another BBC release earlier this year is also splendid).
Patrick Malahide also does a spiffing job as Ned, who finds himself
absorbed by thoughts and reflections triggered by Smiley's lectures
at the school for agents, Sarrat. The World ( and their world with it)
has changed beyond recognition and what was, what might have been and
its impact on the present is poignantly considered and reconsidered
within the echoing halls of memory.

'The Secret Pilgrim' does not quite stand shoulder to shoulder with the
best of Mr le Carre's work. In a way it is a kind of pause for thought;
a punctuation mark. However, its place in the bigger picture of George
Smiley's world is well served by all concerned in this splendid recording.

Recommended.
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