The Pigeon Tunnel, by John Le Carré

5 minute read

I recently finished The Pigeon Tunnel, the ‘autobiography’ of David Cornwell, aka John Le Carré, the well known writer of espionage novels.

The Pigeon Tunnel

“Recounted with the storytelling élan of a master raconteur — by turns dramatic and funny, charming, tart and melancholy.” -Michiko Kakutani, The New York TimesThe New York Times bestselling memoir from John le Carré, the legendary author of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy; The Spy Who Came in from the Cold; and The Night Manager, now an Emmy-nominated television series starring Tom Hiddleston and Hugh Laurie. John le Carré’s new novel, A Legacy of Spies, will be available from Viking in Fall 2017.From his years serving in British Intelligence during the Cold War, to a career as a writer that took him from war-torn Cambodia to Beirut on the cusp of the 1982 Israeli invasion to Russia before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, le Carré has always written from the heart of modern times. In this, his first memoir, le Carré is as funny as he is incisive, reading into the events he witnesses the same moral ambiguity with which he imbues his novels. Whether he’s writing about the parrot at a Beirut hotel that could perfectly mimic machine gun fire or the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth; visiting Rwanda’s museums of the unburied dead in the aftermath of the genocide; celebrating New Year’s Eve 1982 with Yasser Arafat and his high command; interviewing a German woman terrorist in her desert prison in the Negev; listening to the wisdoms of the great physicist, dissident, and Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov; meeting with two former heads of the KGB; watching Alec Guinness prepare for his role as George Smiley in the legendary BBC TV adaptations of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People; or describing the female aid worker who inspired the main character in The Constant Gardener, le Carré endows each happening with vividness and humor, now making us laugh out loud, now inviting us to think anew about events and people we believed we understood. Best of all, le Carré gives us a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than six decades, and his own hunt for the human spark that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters.

While The Pigeon Tunnel is billed as an “autobiography”, it’s more akin to an intimate dinner with the author. Cornwell is undoubtedly a master raconteur; the telling of these stories is filled with laugh out loud humor, thrilling escapes, encounters with other famous people, and the occasional deep insight into the origins of his characters and novels.

Still, it’s no autobiography. If you are really looking for insight into the man, and the man that produced the books, you should first consult Adam Sisman’s masterful biography. The Cornwell that emerges there is deeply complex, exhaustively researched, and often not-entirely-sympathetically.

The Pigeon Tunnel is named after an early experience of Cornwell, where he observes pigeons being bred at a casino in Monte Carlo, to emerge from a tunnel only to be either gunned down by “sporting gentlemen”, or to return to their nest to breed future pigeons to be shot. A metaphor not at all at odds with many of his characters.

The Pigeon Tunnel spans the early days with his con-man father Ronnie (the prototype for Rick in A Perfect Spy, perhaps Le Carré’s deepest, and most auto-biographical work), moves on to his encounters with Yasser Arafat and other world leaders, his experiences with the rich and famous, especially the literary and movie set, and an encounter with a terrorist from the Red Army faction. The chapter on Alec Guinness (who literally became George Smiley for the BBC series) is particularly wonderful. He recounts two encounters with Lord Hogg, a British elite and Lord. Read this and tell me it doesn’t make you think of Donald Trump:

“the object of the crowd’s outrage stood on the platform, giving as good as he got…A fight was what he liked and what he was getting…he was above all a political showman, famous for his bombast and pugnacity..the upper class British brawler the electorate loved to hate…But I remember his red-faced truculence…his puffy agricultural face and curled fists, and yes, that booming upper class roar…”.

The story of his interactions with a Russian spy who is relating the interchange between himself, Saddam Hussein, George Bush Sr., and Margaret Thatcher is howlingly funny, in a rather dark way. The closest the book comes to autobiography is the “Son of the author’s father”, a retelling of his relationship with his father. It’s a reworked version of a New Yorker article with many of the sharp edges sanded off. If you have read The Perfect Spy (if not, you must), you will recognize the fictional Rick, Magnus Pym’s father and the catalyst behind the spy career and betrayal, is not so fictional after all.

Le Carré’s telling of these stories is almost always gripping and often quite self-effacing. But while the book is no “see how great I am” work, it’s also very much lacking in introspection or insight into the man or his works. It mostly feels like a bunch of wonderful stories told over dinner, by a man who very much knows he is on stage.

If you want insight into the man, read Sisman’s biography. Then settle yourself down with a nice whisky (not a whiskey, if you please) and enjoy these stories.