Caught in a pigeon tunnel of writing, spying or both?

This is my review of The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John le Carré.

A BBC Radio 4 serialisation of this book caught my attention at the point when Le Carré invites Alec Guinness to lunch with Maurice Oldfield, former Chief of the Secret Service so the actor can get some ideas for the part of George Smiley. The chameleon actor joins with Oldfield in deploring the adverse effect of Le Carré’s books on the Service, mocks Oldfield’s “vulgar cufflinks” after he has gone, but studiously copies these and other aspects of his dress in his portrayal of Smiley.

The chapters can be read in almost any order, providing fragments of anecdote and observation across a wide field. The author comes across as well-connected, casually mentioning friendships with the rich and famous as one might expect from an old Etonian who achieved cult status as a novelist at an early age, yet also critical of the Establishment, with a cynical take on the world and sympathy for the underdog. I agree with other reviewers who sense a remoteness in his personality, a withholding of many aspects of himself in superficially frank memoirs. This may be due to a combination of factors: his mother’s abandonment of her two sons at an early age, his reaction against a flamboyant conman of a father, whose schemes left him frequently broke or in jail plus Le Carré’s time spent working for British Intelligence, compounding his natural secrecy. The book culminates in a long, bitter rant about his father, with his “infinite powers of self-delusion” in which the author perhaps comes closest to revealing his emotions.

Least satisfactory for me are the chapters on intelligence work and spying, not only because of their necessary vagueness but also owing to the indigestible acronyms and department titles from around the world. There is the additional suspicion that it is all a bit of a charade, as borne out by the exposure of “the final official secret” in the last chapter. The most interesting spy-theme chapter covers the author’s notes on Nicholas Elliott’s account of his friend Kim Philby’s confession to having been a Soviet spy. As Le Carré observes, it gives “a window on the British espionage establishment in the post-war years, on its class assumptions and mind-set.

I was more interested in how Le Carré researches his books. Having plotted a pursuit by ferry between Hong Kong and Kowloon only to discover too late it had been replaced by a tunnel, Le Carré now goes to extraordinary lengths to check out his facts and feel the ambience first hand. So, to preserve his authenticity, he travelled to the East Congo when advised that it was unsafe, in order to interview warlords on both sides of the conflict in the Congo. A priest describes how ethnic hatreds can make extremists even amongst his fellow African Brothers: “Thus it was in Rwanda that otherwise good priests were known to summon all Tutsis in their parish to church , which was then torched or bulldozed with the priests’ blessing”. Another chapter finds him trying to draw out a politely uncooperative radicalised German activist, imprisoned in Israel after joining Palestinian terrorists. Afterwards, Le Carré is surprised to realise that the Prison Governor has spoken to the woman in English, despite being fluent in German. She explains, “When she speaks German, I cannot trust myself…You see, I was in Dachau.”

This book probably flits back and forth over too many incidents in a fully-lived life to make a lasting impact but a few insights lodge in the memory., such as Le Carrés reluctance to take part in interviews about himself, except with the charming Bernard Pivot. “First, you invent yourself, then you begin to believe your invention. That is not a process compatible with self-knowledge”.

⭐⭐⭐⭐ 4 Stars

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