Lunching With Thatcher, Dancing With Arafat

Review: John le Carré, ‘The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life’

John le Carre
John le Carre / AP
• September 24, 2016 4:59 am


The novelist John le Carré has a desk in the basement of his chalet in the Bernese Oberland. Through a window he can see the peaks of the Jungfrau, the Silberhorn, and the Keines. He’s owned the chalet for 50 years. When they were younger, he brought his sons (presumably from both marriages, though he doesn’t say) there every winter to ski. Sometimes they came in the spring, too. It’s May, and he’s at the desk writing his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, longhand­­—the only way he’s ever written—and it’s raining.

He has another desk at his house in Cornwall. This one’s in the attic of a barn on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. It’s sunny and sail boats are being pushed around in the "ridiculously perfect Mediterranean blue" by a gentle eastern breeze. A family of barn owls lives in a rundown cottage a few hundred feet inland. He likes to watch the "golden-white shadow" of one of the adult owls (whom he imagines is the father) "skimming low over the ground" beneath his window.

He also likes to lunch­­—a lot—and not with the local vicar. He meets an aging Václav Havel at a private luncheon in London, and happens to be having lunch with Joseph Brodsky when the Russian learns he’s won the Nobel Prize for Literature. The Italian President Francesco Cossiga, who’s "a fan," invites him and his wife to lunch at Quirinal Palace in Rome. He’s summoned to 10 Downing Street to eat with Margaret Thatcher. When Rupert Murdoch’s Times reports wrongly that he asked for £150 from a struggling post-communist Warsaw theatre group to put on a stage version of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, he faxes Murdoch to demand a "generous apology," a "handsome donation to the struggling Polish theatre," … and lunch. Murdoch accepts.

When he’s not eating with the head of German intelligence or enjoying an "[e]legiac family lunch" with Francis Ford Coppola at his Napa Valley winery, he’s dancing with Yasir Arafat at a school for orphans on a New Year’s Eve, interviewing Russian gangsters after the fall of communism, helping a private French humanitarian in Cambodia, and running around with various war correspondents. These encounters are the experiences behind some of his novels. He occasionally connects the dots for us, like when he tells us he named Issa in A Most Wanted Man after Issa Kostoev, a Russian policeman and later parliamentarian, or when he confirms that the British spy Peter Simms was his model for Jerry Westerby in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. But mostly they are the literary equivalent of a politician’s wall of ego.

A pigeon tunnel, Le Carré explains in the preface, refers to tunnels running under the lawn at a Monte Carlo shooting range, in which pigeons were inserted and used for target practice after they exited the tunnels at the sea’s edge. If they escaped unscathed, the pigeons would return to the roof of a neighboring casino, where they were born, and where they would be recaptured and reinserted into the tunnels. Le Carré confesses not to know why this image has "haunted" him "for so long," but it’s probably because he sees himself in the pigeons, returning in his fiction to his broken home and the life of his "conman, fantasist" and "occasional jailbird" of a father.

It’s a good title, but not the right one for a memoir that does its best to avoid home as much as possible. At the end of the book, Le Carré republishes an essay he wrote for The New Yorker on his mother, Olive, who abandoned Le Carré (the pen name of David John Moore Cornwell) and his older brother when they were boys, and on his difficult relationship to his father, Ronnie Cornwell, but no new details are added. In fact, as David Sexton recently noted in The Evening Standard, the reprinted essay has been altered slightly to make both Le Carré and his father look better.

The point of these "true stories from memory," Le Carré writes, is to "reclaim" them as his own following the publication of Adam Sisman mostly sympathetic biography last year and "tell them in my own voice and invest them as best I can with my own feelings." As far as I can tell, that feeling is primarily a desire to be liked.

Le Carré is a master at providing the right self-deprecating details at the right moment to create the illusion of honesty. For example, when a friend in the Foreign Service invites him to an "exquisite" lunch at All Souls College, Oxford, he sits next to Baron Hailsham of St Marylebone, Quintin Hogg, the future Lord Chancellor. He has little in common with the "combative Tory," but tries to make small talk nonetheless:

I unveil my pen-name, which does not enthrall him. Or perhaps he knows it already, which accounts for his despondency. I say I am fortunate to have a house in Hampstead, but live mostly in Cornwall…I ask him whether he too has somewhere in the country he can stretch out at weekends…He has indeed such a place, and tells me so in three exasperated words: ‘Hailsham, you fool.’

It’s a funny anecdote, at Le Carré’s expense, and there are other confessional tidbits—his fear under fire and occasional naiveté—that endear him to us, but nothing too damning and certainly nothing too personal.

"I have been neither a model husband nor a model father, and am not interested in appearing that way," Le Carré writes. But that noble sentiment doesn’t make The Pigeon Tunnel any truer to the real David Cornwell, who may be as elusive to himself as he is to us.

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