Book review: The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life

Despite half a century in the public eye as the author of 23 bestselling novels, John le Carré is still hiding in plain sight. 

John le Carré

Penguin Viking, €20.00 HB

Second nature for an old spook, of course — but when we speak of the legendary John le Carré, the ex-MI6 intelligence officer and subsequently the author of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, the ‘Smiley’ Trilogy, A Perfect Spy and The Tailor of Panama, it’s wise to remember that a ‘legend’ is the name given to a spy’s background and biography.

Le Carré, interrogating his own memory, doesn’t exactly confine himself to name, rank and serial number in The Pigeon Tunnel, but seasoned fans may be disappointed by the lack of new revelations (with eight of the 38 chapters previously published in newspapers, journals and magazines, there is much that may also be familiar).

Last year’s biography of le Carré by Adam Sisman was a much more informative affair, particularly on le Carré’s career as a spy, although it’s only fair to point out, as the subtitle suggests, that this book wasn’t conceived as a conventional memoir.

“These are true stories told from memory, to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to the creative writer? To the creative writer, fact is raw material, not his taskmaster but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing” he tells us early on,

Indeed, much of this book is taken up with this idea of transforming raw material — some of the most absorbing chapters are those where le Carré allows readers a glimpse into the formative stages of his books, taking them on the journeys he embarked on himself for the purpose of research.

The standout chapters in this regard are those he titles ‘The Theatre of the Real’, recounting his experience of travelling to the Middle East before writing The Little Drummer Girl, during which he danced with Yasser Arafat, then the leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, visited an Israeli military prison in the Negev Desert, and agonised over the political direction the novel should take.

Yasser Arafat isn’t the only famous name to pop up in these pages — the chapter on le Carré drinking with Richard Burton on the Dublin set of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is darkly hilarious, while the chapter titled ‘Alec Guinness’ is a touching tribute to the actor who played George Smiley in the BBC’s classic 1979 adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

Where The Pigeon Tunnel truly scores, however, is when le Carré moves in the latter stages from the public to the personal, to write about his fraught relationship with Ronnie Cornwell, “conman, fantasist, occasional jailbird, and my father,” a man who “rubbed shoulders with the Kray Twins” and may well have been physically violent with the young David (whose mother, Olive, ran away from Ronnie when David was a child). 

At his father’s funeral, le Carré tells us, he was comforted by a member of ‘Ronnie’s Court’: “We was all bent, son. But your dad was very, very bent indeed.”

Again, some of the material may already be familiar to le Carré’s fans (particularly those who have read the novels A Perfect Spy and Single and Single), but there’s a poignant quality to some of the later chapters here, as the author struggles to come to terms with his father’s legacy: “Graham Greene tells us that childhood is the credit balance of the writer. By that measure at least, I was born a millionaire.”

It is certainly not a comprehensive account, but The Pigeon Tunnel is consistently entertaining as David Cornwell / John le Carré attempts to make sense of a life simultaneously lived out in public and in the shadows.

“As a maker of fictions I invent versions of myself, never the real thing, if it exists,” he says.

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