The Secret Pilgrim

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

John le Carré’s reputation as the most respected and most widely read spy novelist probably would not have evolved had not the Cold War existed. The political and military rivalry between the Western democracies and the Soviet bloc provided the duplicities necessary to fuel le Carré’s treatment of moral ambiguities. He began examining the effects of glasnost and perestroika on Soviet-West tensions in his previous novel, The Russia House (1989). The end of the Cold War colors everything in The Secret Pilgrim.

The protagonist of le Carré’s thirteenth novel is Ned, who appears in The Russia House and is one of the British and American intelligence officers blamed for the betrayal of his country by the publisher Barley Scott Blair. Ned has been removed from the daily operation of what is called the Service and is an instructor at Sarratt, where the men and women in British intelligence receive their training. He has invited George Smiley, his old mentor, to address the graduating class. Le Carré assumes a familiarity with the Blair case as well as with Smiley, who appears as both major and minor character in seven earlier novels, most notably the Karla trilogy of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), and Smiley’s People (1980). Characters from these novels appear in The Secret Pilgrim, and Smiley’s rivalry with Bill Haydon, exposed as a Soviet mole in the first novel of the trilogy, influences much of the novel’s action, in which everyone’s motives are suspect.

As Smiley reminisces about his long career and the moral implications of the Cold War, his comments remind Ned of various people and events in his life. The best of the resulting stories stand as self-contained tales in which le Carré reflects upon the themes of his oeuvre, especially love, friendship, betrayal, and the impact of the Cold War.

The most personal of Ned’s stories involves his friendship with Ben Arno Cavendish, whom he meets during training in the early 1960’s. Ben bungles his first major assignment: After foolishly writing on postcards the details of a painstakingly developed spy network in East Germany, he compounds his error by taking the cards with him into East Berlin and losing them, thereby exposing the entire network. Ben runs away before his folly is discovered, and Smiley tricks Ned into leading him to the culprit’s hideaway.

Le Carré’s narrative skill is heightened by his ability to interweave multiple layers of meaning. Ben’s disgrace and his friendship with Ned are complicated by the discovery of an unmailed letter expressing his love for Ned. Ben has long wanted Ned to meet and eventually marry his cousin Stefanie, and Ned finally meets her when he tracks Ben down to Stefanie’s home in Scotland. The irony of Ned’s relationship with Stefanie is that he does adore her, although they meet only a few times over three decades, and that his feelings for her are colored by the uneasiness he experiences over Ben’s attachment to him and his sense of betraying his friend.

Ned and Ben are presented as psychological doubles. They are the same age and share similar backgrounds, including foreign mothers: Ben’s is German, Ned’s Dutch. Stefanie loves Ben, but he is incapable of loving her physically. He wants Ned, his twin, to be his romantic stand-in. Unfortunately, he is as much a failure as a matchmaker as he is as a spy. The strongest stories in The Secret Pilgrim deal with the ways in which love and betrayal become intermingled to complicate further already complicated lives.

Ned falls in love with Bella, another version of Stefanie, while stationed in Hamburg. A Latvian sea captain calling himself Brandt offers to build a supply line between northern Russia and West Germany, and Ned is placed in charge of the operation. Bill Haydon becomes convinced that Bella, Brandt’s beautiful young mistress, is a double agent. After Haydon produces a photograph of Bella at a KGB-operated language school in Kiev, Ned turns her over to Haydon, although Smiley is convinced that the evidence has been faked.

Bella is eventually released and resettled in Canada, but Ned never sees her again. He believes Haydon’s discrediting of her involves more than his usual machinations as a mole destroying British intelligence from within: “Bill hated all women and most men too, and liked nothing better than to turn people’s affections inside out.” A final irony is a possible sighting of Brandt at Moscow Centre in 1989. Ned is haunted by the possibility of his being duped into recruiting Brandt so that the supposed sea captain could discover and kill those working for Western intelligence within the Soviet Union. If this is true, Brandt has allowed the innocent Bella to seduce Ned into playing his part in a multilayered conspiracy. For Ned, love and betrayal are inseparable.

The longest story in The Secret Pilgrim is that of Hansen, another of Ned’s psychological doubles. In his portrayal of Hansen, le Carré borrows from the dark ironies of Joseph Conrad’s Lord Jim (1900) and “Heart of Darkness” (1902) and Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory (1940), The Heart of the Matter...

(The entire section is 2176 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Secret Pilgrim is one of le Carre's most brilliantly written novels. It is a "framed" story, with an outer story that surrounds...

(The entire section is 654 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Secret Pilgrim is likely to generate rip-roaring discussions: some readers are likely to be outraged by the novel, others are...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Although The Secret Pilgrim focuses on the conflict between the free and Communist worlds, it does not present many comparisons...

(The entire section is 185 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Secret Pilgrim is in the tradition of le Carre's The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963). It is a typically gritty account...

(The entire section is 40 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Secret Pilgrim takes place in the British intelligence community that le Carre has included in most of his earlier work. It is...

(The entire section is 115 words.)