I can’t think of any spy novelist who’s spent more time under critical microscopes than John Le Carre. To date, the best full-length excavation of his life an works has been Adam Sisman’s 2015 John Le Carre: The Biography which relied much on interviews with the writer and some insiders in the Le Carre circle.
For readers who want a straight-forward, linear biography of Le Carre, Sisman still remains the source to go to first. As implied by the subtitle of The Pigeon Tunnel, “Stories from My Life” is a pretty apt description of what readers will find from Le Carre himself. The book isn’t an autobiography in the traditional sense of following a subject’s life from childhood to sagehood told from a writer looking back over his years both in the public eye and in his personal life. Considering the amount of material available on the often elusive and confusing story of David Cornwell a.k.a. John Le Carre, readers should never expect a full, all secrets revealed account anyway.
Instead, Le Carre offers a literary slide show of events and people who he has known that have left an impression on him throughout his career. In a sense, we get a series of character sketches of actual personalities who don’t appear in the book in any chronological order. For example, Le Carre doesn’t delve into the importance of his unusual parents until very late in the book. We meet spies in the British intelligence services, German diplomats, Russian would-be defectors and gangsters, innocent Arab terrorist suspects, and powerful figures like Margaret Thatcher and Rupert Murdock. But this isn’t a book full of name dropping. Some figures get fleeting descriptions, as in “Muttsky and Jeffsky,” Le Carre’s humorous monikers for two Russian minders during one of his two visits to Moscow. Others get much more discussion, as in Yasser Arafat and Le Carre’s three brief encounters with the Palestine leader.
Along the way, we do get insights into the models Le Carre fictionalized in his work. As his own spy work was so low-level, essentially being an informant on potential Communists in British academia, the more action-oriented scenes are seen when Le Carre travels the world looking for depth and details for his novels. After he blunders with a scene in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy when he wasn’t aware of a tunnel in Hong Kong linking an island to the mainland, Le Carre didn’t want to get caught flat-footed again. So he endures battle conditions in Cambodia and Vietnam and we witness him being secretly smuggled from car to car in Beirut to meet Arafat. We get many observations on espionage, with often pithy notes like “Spies spy because they can.” Humorous moments occur when world leaders, like the president of Italy, think he has some special knowledge that might help them in ongoing operations.
I’ll admit, reading the audio version as narrated by the author has to be the way to go for Le Carre fans. This is a book that’s as readable as any Le Carre thriller because it’s colorful, insightful, revealing, descriptive, and full of a lifetime of accumulated understanding of human nature. While those who know something about the life and context of Le Carre’s output will gain most from a reading of this slideshow, I think It can be enjoyed even by those without any awareness of the backstories of the Le Carre canon.
This review first appeared at BookPleasures.com on Feb. 8, 2017