The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life
By: John le Carre
Format/Source: eBook; my purchase
“Out of the secret world I once knew, I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit. First comes the imagining, then the search for reality. Then back to the imagining, and to the desk where I’m sitting now.”
From his years serving in British Intelligence during the Cold War, to a career as a writer that took him from war-torn Cambodia to Beirut on the cusp of the 1982 Israeli invasion to Russia before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, le Carré has always written from the heart of modern times. In this, his first memoir, le Carré is as funny as he is incisive, reading into the events he witnesses the same moral ambiguity with which he imbues his novels. Whether he’s writing about the parrot at a Beirut hotel that could perfectly mimic machine gun fire or the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth, visiting Rwanda’s museums of the unburied dead in the aftermath of the genocide, celebrating New Year’s Eve 1982 with Yasser Arafat and his high command, interviewing a German woman terrorist in her desert prison in the Negev, listening to the wisdoms of the great physicist, dissident, and Nobel Prize winner Andrei Sakharov, meeting with two former heads of the KGB, watching Alec Guinness prepare for his role as George Smiley in the legendary BBC TV adaptations, or describing the female aid worker who inspired the main character in The Constant Gardener, le Carré endows each happening with vividness and humor, now making us laugh out loud, now inviting us to think anew about events and people we believed we understood.
Best of all, le Carré gives us a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than six decades, and his own hunt for the human spark that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters.
From the books I’ve read so far by John le Carre, I’ve really enjoyed them, so I was really curious when he released a book about his own experiences and impressions. The book went on sale a few years ago so I snatched it up but then it stayed on my TBR pile for some time–like many of my other books–until a few months ago when I just had the urge to start this book.
The Pigeon Tunnel was such a fascinating read. Of course he doesn’t delve into the actual work that he did during his time in British Intelligence but his impressions and experiences on the field, of living in different stations, of his place during so many different international events over the course of the twentieth century was just very interesting to read. He met so many interesting and large personas like Andrei Sakharov, and again I found myself just thinking and relating back to the geopolitical arena of the time he was living in. In that this book is quite invaluable, alongside a frank view of how the British Intelligence really was like in terms of a generalised view of how they operated and recruited.
But his book, like the novels of his that I’ve read, has a quiet introspective undercurrent to it. His stories–some amusing and kind of random at times, and some suspenseful–often end in reflection of the incident, its context in the larger scheme of things, sometimes in relation to himself and his life (the chapter especially about his family and his relationship with his father was the most personal of the stories he told). This is after all something of a memoir. It’s also interesting how he relates a lot of his own personal stories to the novels that he’s written, how many of the people he’s met over the course of his life and career served as inspiration for the characters he created in his stories.
Overall I really enjoyed reading The Pigeon Tunnel. Readers of his novels will certainly enjoy and appreciate this book, and those who haven’t read his books but who enjoy memoirs and subjects of a geopolitical and historical nature will enjoy this book nonetheless.