The subtitle of John le Carre’s The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life is spot on. Because The Pigeon Tunnel (the Preface explains the title, I am not going to give away the secret) comes across not so much as a memoir in the strict sense of the term. Instead, this episodic, non-linear narrative conveys the impression of Le Carre (or David Cornwell, I should say, given that that is his real name) entertaining and enlightening us with a wealth of stories from his life.
What a life. And what stories.
Meeting Yasser Arafat; lunching with Joseph Brodsky when news of Brodsky’s Nobel Prize comes through; being hectored by Margaret Thatcher; being quizzed by Rupert Murdoch; watching Alec Guinness prepare to play George Smiley, Le Carre’s most famous fictional character; and many, many more. Some of the stories that Le Carre recounts here were known; Adam Sisman’s 600-page-long, authoritative 2015 biography (which had Le Carre’s extensive cooperation) saw to that.
Le Carre refers to Sisman’s book in the Introduction. “A recently published account of my life offers thumbnail versions of one or two of the stories, so it naturally pleases me to reclaim them as my own, tell them in my own voice and invest them as best I can with my own feelings.” Le Carre is, above all else, a consummate storyteller, and it is wonderful to hear these anecdotes in his own voice.
In some instances (such as the meeting with Arafat), there is little difference in the details of an incident as chronicled by Sisman and now reclaimed by Le Carre. In certain others (such as Le Carre’s visit as a teenager to Paris in order to recover money from a Panamanian ambassador on behalf of his father), Sisman’s account has none of the rich detail that Le Carre offers.
Le Carre also offers us none of the details of his often fraught personal life; nothing on his children; none of the bitter spats and rivalries with fellow writers (most notably, his well-documented one with Salman Rushdie).
Rather, he tells us about his travels to far-flung places in the world to research the settings of his novels, to get under the skin of his fictional protagonists, to see and imagine how they would respond to a particular situation. “When I found myself cringing in a dugout beside the Mekong River, and for the first time in my life heard bullets smacking into the mud bank above me, it was not my own quivering hand that confided my indignation to a scruffy notebook, but the hand of my courageous fictional hero, the front-line reporter, Jerry Westerby…”
For admirers of Le Carre, the descriptions of the people who inspired some of his most memorable characters is a great thrill. The model for Jerry Westerby in The Honourable Schoolboy; the aid worker who is one of the central protagonists in The Constant Gardener; the actress who takes centre stage in The Little Drummer Girl.
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The chapter about Le Carre’s father, epic crook and cheat (“he wrecked a lot of people’s lives”) is saved for last. It is that way “because, much as he would like to, I didn’t want him elbowing his way to the top of the bill”. It is a gripping, fascinating account of a man under the shadow of whose actions Le Carre has lived much of his life, a man he tried to write in to The Perfect Spy, one his greatest novels.
The lack of a narrative engine is a weakness in The Pigeon Tunnel. On occasion, it resembles a ragbag of random observations or memories that have been dredged up to pad out the book. A single quote from Graham Greene comprises the chapter titled ‘Advice to an aspiring novelist’. Five paragraphs on Stephen Spender’s thoughts on fame makes up another chapter titled ‘Stephen Spender’s credit card’.
But Le Carre’s legion of admirers will find plenty in The Pigeon Tunnel to compensate for those annoyances. If you are not familiar with Le Carre’s work, this one is not for you. If you happen to be a fan, it will make you – as it did me – want to reread his best novels.