By John le Carre

Knopf. 335 pp. $21.95

AS CHILDREN most of us loved to read about the special world of pirates (or Martians or explorers). Without ever expecting to visit such a world, we learned its special rules -- the meaning of the Black Spot, the ritual of walking the plank. For grownups, the mysterious world of fictional spies has something of the same allure; it is one of the few places we can re-enact the childhood fantasy of roaming, of surviving apart from the family or parents, of independence (and the corollary flirtation with despair and abandonment that would make us feel all the safer in our plain world of home and school). In the grownup world, the shipwreck fantasy, the Kidnapped tale, becomes a tale of men who deceive their families (for a higher good), who roam the world or who, kidnapped, turn up in Bangkok or Sydney or Munich, who have access to mysterious clubs and safe houses, endure hardships and brutality, whose virtues are loyalty and stoic courage (and they have cyanide pills if the going gets too rough). It is Romance.

In le Carre's new novel The Secret Pilgrim, we revisit familiar and favorite members of this outcast cast -- George Smiley, Toby Esterhase, and the narrator, Ned -- erstwhile head of The Russia House (home of the British intelligence service's Soviet experts). We know the whole history of the Circus -- the British espionage system -- as we have eagerly followed it in le Carre's works, and understand the allusions to the treachery of Ann, George's ex-wife, or to the mole Bill Haydon. But now it is 1989 or after, with world events bringing to a close the Soviet hegemony, and a time of perestroika for spies too. A "middle-ranking Circus delegation" has even gone to Moscow Center as part of the normalization of relations between the two spy networks. There the British buy fur hats and are shown a great time.

The occasion is a graduation address by the retired George Smiley to an enthusiastic new group of Circus trainees. The mood is valedictory. Taking his cue from Smiley, Ned tells us, in 13 chapters, some of his own stories, things that had happened to him that made him ask hard questions about himself and his profession. And for those who like Meaning, each little story is a lesson in the trade of spying or an allegory of world politics, all loosely pointing the moral that George Smiley makes explicit: "Sometimes I think the most vulgar thing about the Cold War was the way we learned to gobble up our own propaganda."

There is the story of beautiful Bella, "the Baltic strumpet," whom Ned betrayed by believing the false evidence of his own people pointing to her as a Russian spy. She was not -- a lesson to him to rely more on his own instincts and less on ideology. There is the story of Hansen, a hulking whiskey priest living out his life in a Bangkok whorehouse where his mad, beloved Vietnamese daughter, after the trials of the war, finally feels safe and prefers to work. Hansen's explanation (homage to Graham Greene) is that "I could not allow myself to be separated from God's grace."

For Hansen, "beyond the girl's survival lay the survival of his immortal soul." To Ned, Hansen was a reminder that "the slumbering subversive in me had met his champion. The would-be lover in me had found a scale by which to measure his own trivial preoccupations." The pragmatic Cold Warrior can only envy "a man who in his search for meaning had discovered a worthwhile object for his life; who had paid every price and not counted it a sacrifice; who was paying it still and would pay till he died; who cared nothing for compromise, nothing for his pride, nothing for ourselves or the opinion of others; who had reduced his life to the one thing that mattered to him, and was free." For the members of the Circus world are nothing if not able to personalize and to feel themselves indispensable to, all politics, all morals. Maintaining the fiction of detachment ("the distance from the human condition that is essential to our trade"), they are the most passionately connected.

In the climate of peaceful change, this little band feels left over: backward-looking, shipwrecked soldiers of fortune. There is a sense that "something has happened to their way of thinking that unsuits them to the overt life," and that if they cannot live a covert life in service of their country, they'll probably mess up. Having seen everything from the inside, they have their (slightly tendentious) views about their own value: "I told them that the only pauses in the history of human conflict had been pauses not for moderation but excess, pauses for the world to redivide itself, for the thugs and the victims to find each other, for greed and deprival to regroup."

It is interesting that although in the books of John le Carre we have learned the minutiae of a spy's life -- the mysterious esprit de corps, the technology of microdots -- he has never really succeeded in explaining why one becomes a spy, and why it is so specially British. This is just the great given, the fundamental premise one accepts, something to do with the British educational system, or with living on an island, or with the curious durability of boys' games in the life of adult Englishmen, that quality that has given us Lord Baden-Powell and Peter Pan. The British spies are polite and educated -- perhaps spying is the enacted fantasy life of the repressed.

This book, like le Carre's others, illumines the spiritual condition of being a spy, but it is briefer, episodic, different from the tightly plotted, elaborate constructions of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Little Drummer Girl. We begin to have a different sense of the author himself; as with someone on a diet, as it gets slimmer, the lineaments of the essential oeuvre come out -- the metaphorical significance of the covert life, standing for the inner life, the rebellious nature, the almost religious affection for the secret team, the recurring protagonist like an oblique self-portrait (whether true or not) of an emotional, philandering romantic.

In bidding the new class of spies goodbye, George Smiley has some severe words for the society that has formed them (and their "American Cousins"); "we protected the strong against the weak, and we perfected the art of the public lie. We made enemies of decent reformers and friends of the most disgusting potentates. And we scarcely paused to ask ourselves how much longer we could defend our society by these means and remain a society worth defending . . . we opened our gates to every conman and charlatan in the anti-Communist racket {and} got the villains we deserved."

We may not see much more of the retired George Smiley. "Time you rang down the curtain on yesterday's cold warrior, and please don't ask me back, ever again. The new time needs new people." Luckily for us, Smiley is pretty confident that spies will always have their uses. He tells his audience that "with each new nation that came out of the ice," with "each new alignment, each rediscovery of old identities, each rediscovery of the old status quo, the spies would be working round the clock," and, with that special respect we have for great storytellers, we can only hope that John le Carre is too.

Diane Johnson is a novelist and critic, whose most recent book is "Health and Happiness."