Le Carré, John. The Secret Pilgrim.

NY: Knopf, 1991.

Le Carré is the most skilled author of spy stories in English in the 20th century, or perhaps ever. And George Smiley, the tubby, bespectacled genius of “the Circus” (named for the Intelligence Service’s location in a nondescript building on Cambridge Circus, London), is one of the most famous characters in modern fiction.

But Smiley (recruited in the 1930s and spent much of World War II undercover and behind the lines in Germany) was mostly an artifact of the Cold War, as detailed in the “Karla” trilogy. So what happened when the Iron Curtain fell? Smiley retired (it was time anyway) but there was a new crop of spies.

This volume, written as that new political world was just being formed, focuses on Ned (no surname given), more than a generation younger than George, but who followed in his footsteps all through the 1960s and ’70s, up to the very end of the Cold War. He was planting microphones in the Vatican (at their request) when Smiley outed Bill Haydon as the Circus’s longtime mole, which nearly destroyed the Service. And, eventually, he was put to running their training program as a last hurrah before his own retirement.

Almost on a whim, Ned invites George in from his little cottage in the country to share some of his wisdom, never dreaming that he might accept — but he does, and what a treat a visit from The Legend is for his graduating students! And as Smiley recounts his own experiences and makes a series of points about the life of the spy, and why they should question everything, Ned is drawn to reflect on his own career, beginning with his first assignment with the Watchers, tailing the visiting brother of an oil sheik and his kleptomaniac wife through the department stores of London, and continuing on through his interrogation of his own small-time mole, a clerk in the cipher department — an extraordinarily fascinating episode and some of the author’s best work. The peak of his own career, by the way, was running the Russia House, and Le Carré wrote a terrific novel about that, too.

The effect is almost of a collection of short stories within a narrative framework, and one must wonder if these were originally scenes and bits of story from Le Carré’s notebooks that he never found a place for in his earlier novels. No matter, it all works very, very well, providing an overview of a modern career in all aspects of intelligence-gathering and espionage, offered in the author’s masterfully fluid style. And also of the growth of cynicism in an idealistic young man who comes to share most of his famous predecessor’s worldview. If you’ve already read the aforementioned trilogy — and I recommend you do — you’ll recognize many of the supporting cast and historical references. This is a great way to spend a weekend.

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