Non-Fiction, Spies

Non-Fiction: The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré

October 18, 2016

Subtitled “Stories from My Life,” John le Carré’s The Pigeon Tunnel isn’t the linear autobiography I was expecting; instead, it’s an alinear anthology of memories, which makes it a perfect complement to Adam Sisman’s official biography. Curiously, reading it reminded me a little of le Carré’s underlooked mosaic novel The Secret Pilgrim, wherein an aging spy looks back on the episodes of his career, prompted by a training class lecture from none other than George Smiley. Perhaps, like Ned in that book, le Carré has entered this time of reflection in his life.

The most surprising thing about The Pigeon Tunnel is how much it makes le Carré appear to be a “write what you know” author — something Sisman’s biography never quite conveyed. Le Carré has always downplayed his intelligence career, but the stories here show that his experiences in that world were legitimately formative and fed directly into his fiction. And, even more interestingly, the author’s rather worldly life after spydom continues to convey a sense of international intrigue. Research trips to Southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Congo, and elsewhere feel very much like the nerve-wracking adventures of his characters; le Carré doesn’t sensationalize the stories, but the quality of the writing lends them a certain narrative mystique that feels almost as imaginative as the novels. Many chapters introduce us to acquaintainces and friends who would serve as the character models for his novels.

Meanwhile, le Carré’s celebrity led to numerous encounters with world leaders, film directors, actors, and more. Chapters about his friendships with Richard Burton, Martin Ritt, and Alec Guinness are highlights, as is his humorous recollection of several film adaptations that weren’t made. Somehow he makes this jet-setting lifestyle feel, in its way, like part of a secret world.

Needless to say, fans of the author will find much to enjoy in this book, although I’d venture to say that a certain familiarity with his novels and life is a prerequisite. If this is the final book of le Carré’s career — I, for one, am hoping for more! — it makes for a brisk, illuminating coda.

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