IN ``The Secret Pilgrim,'' John le Carr'e scales new heights. He has dominated the spy-novel genre since he claimed this literary terrain as his own in 1964 with his now classic work, ``The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.'' A reverie-memoir, his new book is a compilation of reflections about a long life of spying by a man with no surname called Ned, the twilight of whose career coincides with the end of the cold war. Secret agents, and the societies which train them, pay a severe toll in compromised principles, stilted morality, and disjointed loyalties. For the spies who fought in this war, the euphoria they feel over the fall of the Berlin Wall is decidedly mixed. After 40 years of espionage, the reality is that the ordinary people of Eastern Europe and Gorbachev, not the Circus (British Intelligence) or the American Cousins (United States Central Intelligence Agency), ended Stalinism.
``It was man who ended the Cold War in case you didn't notice. It wasn't weaponry, or technology, or armies or campaigns. It was just man. Not even Western man either, as it happened, but our sworn enemy in the East, who went into the streets, faced the bullets and the batons and said: we've had enough,'' says George Smiley in an address Ned has asked him to give to the newest graduates at Sarratt, a spy training school for the elite of British intelligence.
Readers of le Carr'e met Ned in the author's previous novel, ``The Russia House,'' where the master spy-writer more than hinted at the end of the cold war a year before the Berlin Wall fell. Now, Ned is center stage as the narrator. The story line becomes Ned's extended reveries, concentric circles of emotion, guilt, and anger held in check over a lifetime in the spy business, wrapping themselves back on his motives, ideals, and values.
Ned's memories cover seven major assignments in his career. Posted in all the familiar le Carr'e locales - Hamburg, Munich, London, Beirut, the Far East - Ned's introspection gives the reader a privileged vantage, that of a senior intelligence officer, replete with all the psychological intrigue, delusion, and hydra-headed loose ends endemic to spying. Le Carr'e has no peer in selecting, sorting, and sifting shifting states of mind from the murkey world of espionage.
But however keen, however dispassionate Ned's memory may be, it alone is not enough to provide the basis for a yes or no to the dominant question of the book, the question Ned continuously poses, but is unable to answer, ``Was it worth it?''
One man's partial view is too simplistic, or too misleading, or too circumspect, to account for 40 years of cold war intrigue, or so it would seem. Enter George Smiley, an analytic deus ex machina who both augments Ned's memory and resuscitates the conscience he lost along the way. Not only does Smiley state answers to questions Ned only hints at, he redeems Ned's despairing soul by cutting through to first principles. Le Carr'e brings this off in a credible fashion by having Smiley address key events in the cold war in his ``lecture'' to the next generation of spies.
By the end, Ned does sort out many of the important events of his life. But he completes his ``pilgrim search'' on only an intuitive, albeit near revelatory note. It is left to Smiley, after the reader flounders on the hard experiences of Ned, to reconcile what Ned has resolved but not reconciled.
`` `I only ever cared about the man,' Smiley announced.'' These final words by George Smiley, spoken in the twilight of his career as well, represent John le Carr'e's metaphysics of spy writing. What le Carr'e has Smiley say is that, no matter the cost, the relentless pursuit of blind ideology must be guarded against.
The Russian Bear may or may not be finished, as the all too recent and tragic events in Vilnius indicate. But Ned, Smiley, le Carre, and the reader have reached the end of an era. The pilgrimage of the cold-warrior agent is over.