“Spying is waiting,” John le Carré wrote in his 1989 novel “The Russia House.” The former spook turned bestselling author made his readers play a similar waiting game to get something resembling an official account of his eventful life.
Last year, fans were finally rewarded for their patience. Adam Sisman’s authorized biography may only have touched on his subject’s marriages and glossed over his time spent on Her Majesty’s secret service, but it still managed to shine an illuminating light on a man of mystery.
A year on and another book on Le Carré appears, this time a memoir written by Le Carré himself. “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life” is not a corrective to Sisman’s biography, but is more of a companion piece that fills in blanks, expands thumbnail sketches and spins new tales.
Once again, Le Carré remains tight-lipped about key details of his intelligence work, but he offsets this reticence by offering fascinating insight into the people and places that have informed his writing, and candid discussion of the events, whether geopolitical upheavals or cloak-and-dagger exploits, that have stoked his ire and shaped his beliefs.
Le Carré’s opening “stories” chart incidents from his spell as a diplomat in Germany in the early 1960s. However, his stories become more interesting when his life does. With publication of “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” (1963), his writing career takes off, and from this point on he is brought into contact with all sorts.
He shares encounters with adventurers, activists, war reporters, an innocent Guantánamo inmate and, of course, “various shades of spy” — several of whom are bitter at the way he has depicted them or traduced their organization in his fiction.
Some stories see Le Carré recounting field trips he made to battlegrounds or trouble spots for settings in his novels. He meets Congolese warlords and Russian mafia chiefs and is shot at by Khmer Rouge fighters. He dances with Yasser Arafat, lunches with Rupert Murdoch and watches Richard Burton on set. We glimpse him in No. 10 Downing Street, Rome’s presidential palace, a Laotian opium den and, as he thrillingly expounds on his craft, behind his desk.
Le Carré’s longest and most personal story is one about Ronnie — “con man, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father.” Le Carré fictionalized him in his masterpiece, “A Perfect Spy” (1986); Sisman explored his deceit and delusions at length in his biography. Here Le Carré attempts closure by laying bare his troubled relationship with his father and assessing the financial damage Ronnie caused others and the emotional damage he caused his son.
No other story in “The Pigeon Tunnel” is as substantial, but practically all contain some wry anecdote, deft character study or nugget-like revelation. Let’s hope that this memoir isn’t a last word, and that Le Carré has more tales to tell.
Malcolm Forbes has written for the Times Literary Supplement, the Economist and the Daily Beast. He lives in Edinburgh, Scotland.
The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life
By: John le Carre.
Publisher: Viking, 310 pages, $28.