Master spy novelist John le Carré reveals glimpses of an exceedingly interesting life in his new memoir “The Pigeon Tunnel.”
‘The Pigeon Tunnel’
by John le Carré
Viking, 320 pp., $30
John le Carré, the gold standard of modern espionage novelists, knows almost nothing about spying — or so he says. The writer (real name: David Cornwell) worked briefly for MI5, the British intelligence agency, as a young man. But asking him about spycraft, he asserts in this memoir, would be like asking a junior mechanic with no race-car experience to fix your Grand Prix contender.
It is undeniable that the writer worked for MI5, and his reluctance to reveal insider knowledge is understandable; some of it may have serious repercussions for ex-colleagues. Nonetheless, this memoir does dish some fascinating material about the sometimes surprisingly ramshackle and Jerry-rigged agency.
Specifically, there are extended passages about a Cold War scandal involving a top spy, Kim Philby, and other Britons who for years fed information to the Soviet Union.
Le Carré left espionage after the success in 1963 of “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.” Since then the writer, now in his mid-80s, has led a rich life, and this memoir is a glittering treasure-chest of great stories — some sobering, some funny, but always incisive, witty and spellbinding.
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The prose is silky smooth, and the voice is effortlessly fluent. The anecdotes glide between present and past tenses, providing the added intimacy of a born storyteller.
The book also bounces back and forth in time, describing the writer’s frequent research trips around the world: Lebanon, Russia, Germany, Congo, Panama. Frequently, these journeys turn strange and dangerous.
Many anecdotes feature famous people. There’s the New Year’s Eve when the author dances in an impromptu conga line led by Yasser Arafat. Or the lunch hosted by Margaret Thatcher, imperious but surprisingly clueless.
Le Carré’s two wives and four children are mentioned only in passing. And many of the real people here are anonymous, or nearly so. Often they provide fodder for the author’s creative process.
For example: The actress and social radical at the center of “The Little Drummer Girl” was loosely based on his sister Charlotte.
A pilot in “The Honourable Schoolboy” was inspired by a war-toughened aviator who ferried the author around Cambodia, providing instructions on how to fly the plane if he himself got too high on morphine.
Most of all, there is le Carré’s father, a charismatic con man about whom the author still has decidedly ambivalent feelings. Ronnie Cornwell famously inspired one of le Carré’s most memorable characters, the fraudster Rick Pym in “A Perfect Spy.”
This is memoir, not history, so the stories are obviously selective. For a more thorough and neutral look at the writer’s life, see Adam Sisman’s admirable 2015 book, “John le Carré: The Biography.”
Still, despite his selectiveness, le Carré has always been a peerless storyteller — and central to both espionage and novel writing is the ability to make up stuff and get others to buy it.
No matter. Even when taken with a grain of salt, “The Pigeon Tunnel” is pure pleasure.