Tuesday, September 13, 2016
The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life by John le Carré
These stories are pure enjoyment. David Cornwell makes up for all those years he refused interviews, answering questions we never got to ask. If he doesn’t quite “bare all,” within are things we may have felt strongly about at the time, but now excite us just for the pleasure of hearing a different voice tell us indeed, we may have been right all along.
The written word is fine, but I am going to urge readers to consider the audio of this memoir which is read by the author himself. His accents and inflection make for riotous listening in parts: his plummy enunciation explain moments of real learning, like when he was sent to Paris as a sixteen-year-old to pick up a debt for his father, or his learning the ways of Hollywood.
Society’s view of spies changes with the times, and David Cornwell acknowledges this, and along with us is horrified at the waste and destruction many of those pointed in the direction of the interests of state have wrought through arrogance and incompetence.
What is most appealing about le Carré’s writing is that David Cornwell has never stopped being the man that attracted MI-5 and-6 when he was recruited early on in his career. He is capable of enormous leaps of understanding—and judgment, when it comes to it. A few of his books will remain in the stacks, long-lasting as literature, because he managed to capture something we acknowledge as real, if dark and depressing and somehow enormously sad.
This le Carré autobiography is arguably even more engrossing than his novels because he applies his writing talent and unparalleled observation and pacing skills, but he shares the sources of his inspiration, highlighting for us where his characters diverge from their real-life counterparts. Real people in real crises are almost always more interesting than their fictional counterparts, aren’t they? Best of all, we get cameos of famed leaders and crooks, winners, losers, and those who tried.
The most affecting bits he saved for the end, where he talks about his “confected” childhood memories, including a mother, all angles instead of curves, whom he met at the age of twenty-one and who talked nonstop about Ronnie (his father), but supplanting the “he” with “you.”
A family of storytellers, then, and it all manifest in a man torn between the truth and it’s opposite. Cornwell could tell a scam from a mile away, which is why he never went public with the “tell-all” offered to him by Nicholas Elliott, best friend and colleague of Kim Philby, one of the most infamous double agents in British Intelligence history. But hearing Cornwell take on the voice of Elliott as he ostensibly spilled the secrets regarding the still-classified debriefing with Philby in Beirut is something you do not want to miss, even if you aren’t aware of the significance of that confession.
A couple of meetings with Yasser Arafat stand out, as does his unrehearsed seventy-five minute live interview with French television personality and host Bernard Pivot. Cornell speaks so glowingly of what a phenomenon Pivot was on television that I will forever regret not knowing enough French to understand Pivot's wit and sense of style.
This book gives enormous pleasure, whatever your preferred method of consumption. The revelations may seem out of date to some, but it is actually one of those memoirs that never go out of date. Classic, I think they call it.
Below, an excerpt from the audio, read by le Carré:
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