The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré

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Reviewed by Rob Spence

The very name seems mysterious: perhaps a whiff of the matinée idol about it, speaking of a glamorous and wealthy background. And although, like many a film star’s, John le Carré’s name is a pseudonym, he did not adopt it as a way of adding charisma, but as a means of becoming anonymous. In the introduction to this unusual memoir, he writes of the advantages of being able to travel incognito on research trips for his fictions. Those fictions, beginning when he published Call for the Dead in 1961, have propelled him to his position as one of the most admired writers of espionage novels in a career that began at the height of the Cold War and which continues today, with contemporary concerns such as the rise of jihadism and cybercrime providing his plotlines.

Le Carré, as his readers will know, wrote from a privileged position as a former member of the secret services, and used versions of real events and characters in his fiction. But readers expecting a chronological account of his career in typical standard autobiography style will be disappointed by this volume, tellingly subtitled ‘Stories from My Life.’ The author chooses to present a series of moments in his life, starting with the time, as a precocious teenager, he left home to go to Switzerland, where he studied German, and had his first experience as a spy, “delivering I knew not what to I knew not whom, ” at the behest of “Wendy from the British embassy.” His love of German literature and culture, shared by his most memorable fictional creation George Smiley, led him to Oxford and thence to a career in what he described as ‘the Circus’, the often shabby and decidedly unglamorous branch of the secret service better known as MI6.

The anecdotes and vignettes that make up this rather curious volume are vivid, portraying a long – Le Carré is 85 – and varied life, lived to the full in a bewildering series of exotic locations, and peopled with interesting characters, from Yasser Arafat to Alec Guinness. The book is divided into 38 short sections, each with a focus on a person or event in the author’s life. Perhaps the most remarkable of them is the one devoted to the author’s father, Ronnie Cornwell, a profligate chancer and conman, jailbird and bankrupt, whose aspirations for his offspring bore fruit, in that they were public-school educated and Oxford graduates, but whose own life spiralled out of control in a series of desperate episodes that left chaos in his wake. He seems like a character out of Evelyn Waugh, and indeed, Le Carré admits to using lightly fictionalised versions of him in his novels.

Le Carré’s profession, and his background as a professional spy, make the reader wary about this volume: like any autobiographical writing, we are at the mercy of the author in terms of its veracity, but here the writer of fiction foregrounds the tendentious nature of his narrative: “Real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance,” he says, perhaps enjoining the reader to take all this with a pinch of salt.

Having said that, the author’s life does, of course offer some marvellous material, and the reader is mightily entertained by anecdotes about the great and good as well as some shadowy figures in the world of espionage. The passages that reveal some of the workings of the intelligence service are of considerable interest, and send you back to the classic novels to compare events. The division into compact sections make it an ideal bedside read, and the lack of photographs or an index perhaps underline its status as a collection of stories rather than an authentic autobiography. Fans of Le Carré will want this in their collection, to sit alongside the recently published official biography by Adam Sisman. And the title? That refers to a gruesome practice at the sporting club of Monte Carlo, where pigeons are bred to be sent along a dark tunnel, and to emerge to be shot at by the members. The ones who survive return, by homing instinct, to the roof of the club, to be sent down the tunnel again. I’m not sure what metaphor le Carré sees in this: maybe the futility of the spy game. Who knows?

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John le Carré, The Pigeon Tunnel (Viking, 2016) 978-0241257555, 310pp., hardback.

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