Fiction and Memory Blend Uneasily in John le Carré’s ‘Pigeon Tunnel’

Lee Polevoi


The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life

By John le Carré

Viking Press

310 pages


In his new “non-memoir” memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel, John le Carré assures readers that what they’re about to read—in terms of recorded events that actually “happened” in his life—is approximate at best:


“These are true stories told from memory—to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life? To the lawyer, truth is facts unadorned. Whether such facts are ever findable is another matter. To the creative writer, fact is raw materials, not his taskmaster but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing. Real truth lies, if anywhere, not in facts, but in nuance.”


Nowhere does le Carré attempt to evade responsibility for what he puts down on paper (“Disguised where necessary, yes. Falsified, emphatically not”). But throughout nearly 40 chapters—or vignettes, anecdotes or pieces of journalism—he reminds us numerous times that memories indeed get jumbled, fall short, dissolve into imprecision.


Before examining the virtues and shortcomings of The Pigeon Tunnel, it’s worth pointing out to readers who don’t already know it that le Carré is among the great writers of our time. Of his many novels, at least two (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) will endure long after most contemporary fiction has scattered like sand on a windy day.


And even now, in his 80s, le Carré still produces fiction of superb craftsmanship, insight and language. His most recent novel, A Delicate Truth, is only the latest example of his mastery.


So it is that legions of his fans will eagerly embrace these “stories from my life.” There’s the promise of a look behind the veil, reminiscences of experiences that culminated in the creation of George Smiley and many other unforgettable characters, as well as the hope of learning more about the author himself. And much of The Pigeon Tunnel may interest readers unfamiliar with his work, or only exposed to it through largely inferior film adaptations.


Included here are brief reports of encounters with public figures like Joseph Brodsky, Yasser Arafat, Alec Guinness, as well as lesser-known but legendary figures of the shadow world he once inhabited professionally and about which he has written for most of his life. There are also humorous sketches of mercurial movie directors and other Hollywood habitués who came to him with a burning passion to translate his novels to film, and only ever partly succeeded. (The one exception, of course, is the BBC adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, with Alec Guinness embodying the spymaster George Smiley.)



But for those of us steeped in le Carré’s Cold War novels—which, to this day, inform our view of the world—many episodes recounted here are pretty familiar, as is the classic, world-weary perspective he justifiably assumes throughout.


“Son of the Author’s Father,” the crowning piece of the book (and by far the longest), describes an almost unbelievable upbringing at the hands of his father Ronnie, an unrepentant con man, grifter and flim-flam artist. It’s the best piece in this collection of previously published essays and articles, but again, for readers of The Perfect Spy, the portrayal of Rick Pym, errant father of the novel’s hero Magnus Pym, seems far more compelling.


In the book’s introduction, written “in the basement of the little Swiss chalet … in a mountain village ninety minutes by train from Bern,” le Carré bares his soul albeit slightly in a fetching burst of enthusiasm for his craft:


“And I love writing. I love doing what I’m doing at this moment, scribbling away like a man in hiding at a poky desk on a black-clouded early morning in May, with the mountain rain scuttling down the window and no excuse for tramping down to the railway station under an umbrella because the International New York Times doesn’t arrive until lunchtime.”


This is the world-class voice imprinted on so many of us, and which, for better or worse, appears only intermittently in The Pigeon Tunnel.


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is completing a new novel.


For Highbrow Magazine

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