Le Carre's Latest Has Aura Of Post-cold War Exhaustion

December 30, 1990|By STEPHEN HUNTER

The Secret Pilgrim. John le Carre. Knopf.

335 pages. $21.95. John le Carre's new "novel" isn't, as it turns out, a novel at all; rather, it's a collection of essays on the meaning of treason and the role of covert agencies in overt societies, as disguised in a collection of quasi-short stories. The book itself, therefore, is its own subject: deception.

On the one hand, this is somewhat discouraging. Does it mean, and one hopes it doesn't, that Mr. le Carre no longer has the energy for a major effort? Some of the pieces here are mere finger exercises, O. Henry jobs complete to little jablike surprise endings, amusing but definitely lighter than air.

Indeed, a general feeling of dispiritedness clings to "The Secret Pilgrim." The Cold War having been formally declared null and void, Mr. le Carre is left with little to do but tidy up and remember. The book takes place not in any zone of triumph but in a zone of postwar exhaustion, and the niggling concern is whether the long struggle was worth it, and whether the secret services contributed any, if at all, to its cessation.

The narrator and anti-hero is one Ned, no last name given. Ned may be remembered from Mr. le Carre's last book, "The Russia House," in which he was the head of that joint Anglo-American anti-Soviet penetration effort that went doggo when its operative, Barley Blair, defected. (Ned is played in

the new movie version of "The Russia House" by James Fox, if you're interested.)

Barley's defection has all but ruined Ned's career; now an experienced late-middle-aged espionage executive, he's been exiled to "the Nursery," and is listlessly in charge of training new agents. The setting of the book is one night's visit and lecture to the facility by George Smiley, Ned's one-time mentor and longtime le Carre hero. But as Smiley lectures the recruits, it sets Ned to ruminating over his long career.

Though he doesn't acknowledge it, the secret compass of Mr. le Carre's work (and Ned's career) seems to be Malcolm Muggeridge's acerbic comment that "all espionage tends toward farce." Generally, Ned's memories pull him in that same direction: His history is a melancholy chronicle of folly, duplicity and blindness. And he remembers, with some bitterness, that the British intelligence service is foremost of all a bureaucracy, even though a secret one, and that bureaucratic rules apply.

He remembers, for example, a well-regarded Hungarian agent who had been supposedly running networks behind the curtain for years, to the enthusiastic acclaim of both the British and the Americans who co-sponsored him. So ardently had they sold their souls and careers to him, they could not believe the truth, which is that he was a complete phony. The more they spent on him, the more they wanted to believe in him.

Or he remembers the young agent so overwhelmed by the amount of information he had to master about the networks he was to service in East Berlin that he wrote it all down on flashcards, like a child mastering multiplication tables. Then he promptly lost the cards . . . beyond Checkpoint Charlie. His agents were rounded up and executed.

A constant theme is the banality of motive. Professionally obligated to become a connoisseur of treachery, both in efforts to generate it among Eastern Bloc targets and in efforts to prevent it among his colleagues, Ned discovers that on both sides of the Curtain, ideology is dead. People spy for the silliest, the most commonplace of reasons: one English mole because he simply loves the feeling of being special that his Russian case officer gives him, and when he confesses (to Ned), it's because Ned has played the same little game of flattery. A high-ranking Polishofficer becomes a mole primarily because he loves the sense of danger. "No danger is no life," he says.

I should say, of course, that many of the pieces are absolutely first-rate and possess what might be called a Conradian quality, as they press toward the heart of darkness, remorselessly trying to achieve it. In one, Ned debriefs an agent who's survived the Khmer Rouge holocaust, having journeyed through it in pursuit of his daughter. In another extremely impressive outing, Ned encounters the rigid, impenetrable zealotry of a committed terrorist and can do nothing but look upon it and despair.

Yet for all that sense of despair, the book also has a wonderful sense of nostalgia to it, especially for longtime readers of Mr. le Carre. As Ned shuffles through his memories, he touches base with and catches us up on many of the memorable figures that have figured in the previous Circus novels, including Peter Guilliam, Toby Esterhase, the Harry Palfrey who narrated "The Russia House," the late Percy Alleline, and the doomed Control, whose bitter death at the beginning of "Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy" set the whole brilliant cycle in motion in 1974. In this sense, the book is like coming home again.

And Mr. le Carre deploys his superb gift for what might be called "middle-distance

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