Don’t get your hopes up, Smiley fans. Yes, it’s true that John le Carré dedicates this new book to Alec Guinness, who so perfectly played George Smiley of British Intelligence in the TV versions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. It’s also true that ”old George,” that quietly charismatic spymaster, does show up — now and again — in the new book. But Smiley, unfortunately, is just a supporting actor this time, a figure in the background. The ”secret pilgrim” is a rather faceless fellow named Ned, a veteran intelligence officer near retirement now teaching at Sarratt, England’s training school for spies. And, though described as a novel, The Secret Pilgrim is more accurately a collection of related short stories.
Ned, you see, has invited Smiley for a long after-dinner chat with the school’s most recent graduating class of soon-to-be secret agents. So, in each of the book’s chapters, some Smiley comment or word of advice to the students triggers Ned’s memory of an episode in his own espionage career. For Le Carré, spy fiction’s master architect, this is a surprisingly clunky device. Still, the individual tales, shrewdly varied in locale and tone, have all the storytelling finesse that Le Carré readers have come to expect.
From Ned’s early days at ”the Circus” (British Intelligence) there are droll, rueful stories of misplaced zeal and lost innocence. He unintentionally betrays his best chum from training school, who’s on the run after making a ghastly mistake during a mission to East Berlin. Some years later, while in Hamburg to oversee the nautical exploits of a band of volatile Latvian patriots, Ned discovers grand passion, but he soon suspects his Baltic bombshell (unfairly, as it turns out) of being a Soviet double agent. And the book’s standout comic scene, set in Munich, explains how a useless Hungarian émigré conned both the Circus and the CIA into taking him seriously as a spy.
Then, as Ned’s reminiscences move into the 1970s, when his growing disillusionment stirred ”the slumbering subversive in me,” the stories become grimmer. On a trip to the Mideast he’s disturbed by the ravings of a ”bomb-shocked peace-seeker” in Beirut, by the weirdly serene rhetoric of a gorgeous German terrorist in an Israeli prison. In Bangkok he meets a renegade British agent who’s in a rage about the U.S. bombing of Cambodia but equally fed up with the Khmer Rouge. Finally, back in England in the 1980s, Ned is assigned the job of interrogating — and mercilessly exposing — pathetic Cyril Frewin, a Foreign Office cipher clerk driven to treason by sheer loneliness.
What ties these and a half dozen other vignettes together? Certainly not plot: The threads of story line never hook up. Neither do the pieces of Ned’s character. His fragmentary memoir has none of the depth or psychological drama of Le Carré’s A Perfect Spy (a similar, far better book), and you end up feeling next to nothing for him.
All that truly connects the episodes here, in fact, is Le Carré’s familiar theme: the meaninglessness of the Cold War, the futility of all the spying and killing and betraying. This time that theme, laid on with an uncharacteristically heavy hand, often seems tired. But, page by page, Le Carré remains enough of a dazzler — the scorching dialogue, the fascinating details, the wry and seductive narration — to make The Secret Pilgrim a richly diverting disappointment. B+