Review of The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories of My Life – John Le Carré

Posted: December 27, 2017 in autobiography, Review

“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


Supplied by Penguin Random House New Zealand

Reviewed by Steve

The Pigeon Tunnel has been, by his own admission, the working title for all of John Le Carré’s books. Fittingly, it is the title for his first memoir (if the back cover blurb is to be believed). This is not a grand autobiography whereby the author tries to illuminate every minute of his or her life. Rather it is a collection of anecdotes, just under forty, that cover the length and breadth of the author’s experience.

John Le Carré is the penname of David Cornwell, son of a conman. He sort of fell into the world of espionage while working for the British Diplomatic Service in Germany, and became a novelist despite the Official Secrets Act. He has written more than 20 novels, mostly psychological spy-fi rather than action thrillers. The Cold War served as the backdrop to much of his pre-1990 work. Many of his books have been made into films or adapted to television, or both in the case of The Night Manager.

Being both an ex-spy and a novelist has allowed Le Carré the opportunity to meet a large number of extraordinary people in less than usual circumstances, such as Yasser Arafat in Beirut and a German terrorist held by the Israelis in the Negev Desert. He recounts quite a few of these in his usual sparse yet descriptive style. Being a former spy, many of his subjects assume he is still in active contact with his erstwhile employers. Le Carré lives with the forlorn hope this will cease, but it does make for more interesting anecdotes. The period covered is from his childhood/adolescence until quite recently.

Always entertaining and rarely deprecating of his subjects, Le Carré kept me interested throughout this memoir. I can thoroughly recommend this book to anyone.

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