BILL NASSON is enthralled by the cryptic, shadowy patchwork of memories that form spy novelist John le Carré’s masterful memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel.
In his recent mammoth 652-page biography of John le Carré, one of the world’s major writers, his biographer suggests that the reason that he continues to practise his craft well into his mid-eighties is that ‘writing has become a form of addiction for him’. Or perhaps, as Adam Sisman concludes in his 2017 John le Carré: The Biography, his compulsive book production is ‘his way of ordering an untidy life’. Indeed, his most recent act of psychological settling, published earlier this year at the age of 85, is the novel, A Legacy of Spies.
To read it is to be reminded that Le Carré has lost none of his masterly narrative grip and fondness for edgy metaphors. His casting of the spell of an atmospheric story continues to pull in the reader as if in some modern version of Coleridge’s eighteenth-century Ancient Mariner. Come to that, today John le Carré has become something of an Ancient Mariner himself. And while a famous literary figure, he remains a shadowy, little-known personality. In that sense, he might be seen as the J.M. Coetzee of his artistic genre – the Cold War and post Cold War spy story.
The unusual title of this collection of John le Carré’s non-fiction writings, The Pigeon Tunnel, has a lengthy pedigree. Both the author and his biographer, Adam Sisman, reveal that it was the original working title of virtually every book he has written. It entered Le Carré’s imagination in the early 1950s when he found himself witnessing a pigeon-shoot in front of a fancy casino in Monaco. Cradling shotguns, the beady-eyed rich basked on the seafront lawns while pigeons which were shoved into dark underground tunnels beneath waggled out into the bright Mediterranean sunlight. As the birds fluttered skywards above the sea they were shot by the hotel guests. Pigeons who escaped the cruel fire then did what pigeons tend to do – they flew back to the casino roof where they had been bred, only to be captured and inserted into a tunnel to run the deadly gauntlet once again.
In typically enigmatic fashion, John le Carré informs us that he is unable to provide a personal explanation of why he has been haunted for so long by the memory of the pigeon tunnel, clearly a grotesque image that has lodged in his mind like a limpet. There is, though, no shortage of clues dotted about in the 38 absorbing pieces which make up The Pigeon Tunnel – its writer’s poignant understanding of the pigeons and their world of entrapment – unable to escape through flight, lacking the guile to dodge their awful fate, and doomed to repeat their deadly spiral. That bleak hint at destiny is there, too, in A Destiny of Spies, reportedly meant to be his last book. In it, the padlocked predicament that befalls Peter Guillam, the stalwart MI6 agent sidekick of Le Carré’s greatest character creation, George Smiley, is illuminated nicely by a line from the Anglican Church’s The Book of Common Prayer: ‘We be tied and bound by the chain of our sins’.
Still, don’t be misled into thinking that the spirit of this cooing nest of Stories from My Life is all searing or broodingly melancholic. For it is virtuoso John le Carré, displaying in his autobiographical non-fiction the renowned trademarks of his famous fictional works like The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, and The Little Drummer Girl. This consistently entertaining compilation contains slices of life experience presented in ways that are exhilaratingly inventive and artful, are often cryptic, that reveal a keen ear for the tiny nuances of speech and dialogue, which dabble in fresh turns of the screw, which capture the coded condescension and sarcasm of educated elites, and which switch silkily between credible fact and a fictional re-imagining of some or other incident or person.
Even if there are moments when you may find yourself scratching your head over the depiction of something or other, you are encouraged to suspend any disbelief and to read on. After all, as Le Carré reflects in one of the short essays in this collection, that dealing with the creation of his novel, The Tailor of Panama, he hit on the name, Pendel, for the book’s arch-deceiver and fantasist. Why? Not merely because it was resonant of early immigrant Jewish tailoring families.
More tellingly, it was also after the German word for pendulum, as ‘I liked to think of him swinging back and forth between truth and fiction’. With a shifty Pendel in place, all that remained was to conjure up ‘a decadent, well-born British rascal’ with an eye on the money to recruit him.
Such furtiveness is displayed abundantly in The Pigeon Tunnel, and we know where it comes from. ‘People who have had very unhappy childhoods’, John le Carré writes, ‘are pretty good at inventing themselves’. The story of his life is at one level one of how his boyhood skills at fabrication, concealment and deception went on to become polished professionally in adulthood through work in British intelligence and as a spy, and in his trade as a subtle teller of intricate spy stories.
It is not for nothing that John le Carré is a mask over his real name, David Cornwell. Far more than any commonplace thriller writer’s pseudonym, in the murky world of MI6 espionage it would also serve as a cover name. As the reader is told by this most inscrutable of writers, ‘out of the secret world I once knew I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit’. In its Pigeon Tunnel autobiographical creation, Le Carré’s ‘true stories told from memory’ have no pretence at being ‘pure’. For a creative writer in what he calls ‘the evening of his life… real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance’, and that facility, in turn, is the product of ‘a lifetime of blending experience with imagination’.
Thus, whatever the beans which Le Carré spills in this book are of a deliciously calculating sort. Right towards the end of The Pigeon Tunnel, we are told, ‘I don’t type. I have never typed’. That sense of a hand snaking across a page to compose this or that fluid masterpiece feels right, even oddly reassuring – penmanship is surely something to be expected of an Eton-and Oxford-educated British mandarin, brought up on polished hand-written memos rather than Microsoft Office. But is the claim never to have typed really true? Small wonder that so much of The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life drips mystery of a highly intelligent kind.
With Le Carré’s autobiographical stew covered by this cryptic crust, we get meaty slivers which cover almost 350 pages. There are deftly composed snapshots of his personal encounters with secret police interrogators, spies, terrorists, journalists, war correspondents, film directors and actors, politicians (including Margaret Thatcher and Francesco Cossiga, the president of Italy), political prisoners, Cold War political defectors, and diplomats (mostly devious).
Rich in human insight, they are vivid in detail and written with unfailing panache and often a sardonic edge. Take, for instance, his fleeting acquaintance as an Oxford student with one of his undergraduate peers, a man called Reginald Bosanquet. Decades later, he became the television newsreader, Reggie Bosanquet, famous in Britain of the 1960s and 1970s for his tendency to hit the bottle before fumbling his way through the evening news. Even as a young undergraduate, Bosanquet had a swagger and deep pockets, ‘a private income, a sports car, beautiful women and a kind of premature adulthood to go with them’.
As a cash-strapped le Carré recalls, ruefully and candidly, ‘we liked each other, but there is only so much time you can spend with a man who lives the life you dream of and can afford it when you can’t’.
There is much else in this book on those with a stifled yearning for more and a genius for deceit. Perhaps the most powerful – and by far the most poignant – is ‘Son of the author’s father’ – a reflection on ‘Ronnie, conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father’. The author sniffs around him, weaving the strands of his glamorous and grubby worlds together, building up the sense of a disreputable family man whose ‘entire life was spent walking on the thinnest, slipperiest layer of ice you can imagine’. As a haunting memoir, it is masterly.
As I was finishing this review, there was news of the death in London of Christine Keeler, the call-girl at the centre of the 1963 Profumo Scandal which resulted in the fall of Britain’s Conservative government. With the Cold War hot, she was found to be sleeping simultaneously with John Profumo, the British Secretary of State for War and with Yevgeny Ivanov, the naval attaché of the Soviet embassy in London. It is worth thinking about this as classic John le Carré territory, and what his hands would have made of it as fiction. Except that he would not have needed to make it up.
The Pigeon Tunnel is published by Penguin. Nasson is Distinguished Professor of History at the University of Stellenbosch. His most recent book is History Matters: Selected Writings, 1970-2016, and was published in 2016 by Penguin.