SYNOPSIS: "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.
GENRE: Non-Fiction, Memoir
RATING: ★★★★☆ / 4 fascinating stars!
REVIEW: I grew up with thrillers, mysteries, and espionage novels. They were, and still are, some of my mother's favorite genres. So it makes perfect sense that I would be interested in a memoir from what of literature's kings of spies. John le Carre's list of titles would probably surprise many. I was certainly unaware of a couple that were popular names to me only through cinematic means, completely unaware that the book it was based on was a le Carre. But putting aside the popularity of Hollywood for a moment, the stories recounted and the people that have woven in and out of le Carre's life, are nothing short of fascinating.
I'm not entirely sure how much we actually learn about John le Carre the man in this book (who's real name is David Cornwell, by the by, but from here on will only be called le Carre to lessen confusion), despite it all he is still an enigmatic figure. As the full title suggests, it contains "stories from my life" but it isn't an autobiography, per se. The book is a collection of moments, albeit incredibly interesting moments, that give insight into his writing process and the inspiration he collected across decades to create characters and stories. This is nothing to scoff at, by any means, but if you're looking for government secrets and incredible revelations from the one-time British spy, then you won't find it here. The author is incredibly clear on this point. He recalls minor spy work and several instances of colorful note, but overall his time as a spy was merely a stepping off point into writing, and anything else is still held within his own ethical bounds of secrecy.
The Pigeon Tunnel is full of history and the name dropping is immense, from fallen spies to political figures to Hollywood directors. If you're familiar with the international spy scandals of the last 50 years and prominent news headlines then you'll feel right at home here. Le Carre's personal accounts of these moments and the people he knew, met, and brushed elbows with, are told in such a way as to make history new again. And through it all, le Carre is unfailingly modest. Everything is told and retold with an air of charm and humor. Each recount is without flattery or needless embellishment, trying to create an accurate picture. Still, he is an author of compelling espionage, so who's to tell how much is clever and brilliant writing, and how much is strictly fact. It does feel entirely truthful, though, and utterly honest, at least in my opinion, so take what you will from that.
By far my most favorites passages and chapters were the ones where he met, described, and took direct inspiration from singular people and places. Reading about specific people who inspired him, perhaps most notably his inspiration for The Constant Gardener, was captivating. After that, the instances in which notable figures and dignitaries would call on him for help in serious matters, expecting a super secret agent man to come to their aid, only to find a writer who told stories of spies but who wasn't in "the game", never failed to be funny. Highly entertaining through and through.
Getting a glimpse behind the curtain, so to speak, was brilliant. If you're a fan of John le Carre or spy novels, then I highly recommend this non-fiction.