Title: The Pigeon Tunnel
Author: John Le Carré
Le Carré, John (2016). The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life. New York, New York: Viking
Date Posted: November 18, 2016
Review by Walter Isaacson
Successful men are often driven by a need to come to terms with their fathers. We can see that in the openings of their memoirs. “Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes, and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else,” Barack Obama wrote. Richard Nixon put it more succinctly: “I was born in a house my father built.”
The spy novelist John le Carré opens his charming new book, The Pigeon Tunnel, by recalling the time he tagged along on one of his father’s gambling sprees in Monte Carlo. Beneath the lawn of the sporting club were small tunnels from which trapped pigeons were ejected over the sea as targets for the sportsmen. The ones that survived “returned to the place of their birth on the casino roof, where the same traps awaited them,” le Carré writes. “Quite why this image has haunted me for so long is something the reader is perhaps better able to judge than I am.”
Like a wounded pigeon, le Carré proceeds to circle through his life back toward the injuries of his childhood. He saves the chapter on his father—an irredeemable grifter and con man—until near the end, leading up to it with a hodgepodge of other tales, some related and others a bit random. The result is not so much a memoir as a collection of memories, many of them containing tantalizing intimations of a powerful autobiography that still yearns to be written.
The story of le Carré’s tortured relationship with his Falstaffian father provided grist last year for Adam Sisman’s 652-page biography —which also delved into other corners of its subject’s personal life. Le Carré fully cooperated with Sisman, but was apparently unhappy with having his life so revealed. A few days after the biography came out, le Carré announced he would write his own memoir, which may account for why parts of The Pigeon Tunnel seem hastily assembled. As le Carré explains in his introduction, “A recently published account of my life offers thumbnail versions of one or two of the stories, so it naturally pleases me to reclaim them as my own, tell them in my own voice and invest them as best I can with my own feelings.”
Le Carré’s childhood and dealings with his father prepared him well for joining the British intelligence services, which he did just out of college. “Evasion and deception were the necessary weapons of my childhood,” he writes in the first of his many circles back toward his youth. “When the secret world came to claim me, it felt like a coming home.”
Likewise, living with a pseudonym came naturally. His real name is David Cornwell, but while serving as a British agent in Germany, he began publishing under the name John le Carré. “Spying and novel writing are made for each other,” he notes. “Both call for a ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal.”
His success in 1963 with The Spy Who Came In From the Cold allowed le Carré to quit intelligence work and become the master spy novelist of our era. He assiduously reported his 23 novels on trips from Bremen to Beirut to Bangkok, learning two great lessons. The first was that moral clarity is diminished by increased understanding: “The harder you looked for absolutes, the less likely you were to find them.” The second was that intelligence agencies are a window into a society’s soul: “If you are a novelist struggling to explore a nation’s psyche, its Secret Service is not an unreasonable place to look.”
The Pigeon Tunnel contains revelations about the real-life people who were the basis for some of le Carré’s best fictional characters. We learn that Jerry Westerby, the British journalist-spy in The Honorable Schoolboy, is “loosely descended” from a person named Gordon who was “an upper-class drifter of vaguely aristocratic origin whom my father had relieved of his family fortune.” He is also based on a journalist named Peter Simms, whom le Carré first met at Raffles Hotel in Singapore. “There was not one detail of Simms’s life that I would not have awarded to Jerry Westerby,” he writes, “save perhaps the happy marriage, because I needed him to be a loner.”
Charlie, the title character of The Little Drummer Girl, is based on le Carré’s younger half sister, the actress Charlotte Cornwell. Through her eyes, le Carré sees the ambiguities and charisma of the Palestinians, from Yasir Arafat to a man named Mahmoud who irons Arafat’s image onto the uniforms of the warriors. Yet even there, le Carré cannot shake memories of his father. A visit to an Israeli prison in the Negev desert prompts a pained rumination about “the abiding image of my incarcerated father . . . prowling his cage and protesting his innocence.”
Le Carré still writes his books with a pen, and they read that way; there were times I wished he had better tools to cut, paste and delete. Reading his book is like being at the bar of Raffles with a veteran raconteur who has not expended quite enough effort determining which of his oft-told tales are profound and which a bit pointless. In his novels le Carré mesmerizes us with deep psychological excavations, but this book has some chapters in which he seems content to glide on the surface as he recounts encounters with the likes of Joseph Brodsky, Alec Guinness, and a television interviewer who takes his necktie.
These minor lapses are redeemed when we get to the long and poignant chapter in which le Carré wrestles with the memory of his father. Even though it was his mother who sneaked out when he was 5 and didn’t contact him for 16 years, le Carré’s fixation is on the “con man, fantasist, occasional jailbird” whom he refers to, with an admixture of distance and familiarity, as Ronnie. “From the day I made my first faltering attempts at a novel,” le Carré writes, “he was the one I wanted to get to grips with.”
Le Carré’s colorful depictions of his father not only make this book a delight, they reveal how the author became such a master of deception tales. “He saw no paradox between being on the wanted list for fraud and sporting a gray topper in the owners’ enclosure at Ascot,” le Carré writes. “A reception at Claridge’s to celebrate his second marriage was interrupted while he persuaded two Scotland Yard detectives to put off arresting him until the party was over—and meanwhile, come in and join the fun, which they duly did.”
Ronnie was the model for the charismatic rogue father of Magnus Pym, the title character of A Perfect Spy. In the early drafts, he was villainous and emotionally crippling. It was only after Ronnie was “safely dead,” le Carré writes, “and I took up the novel again that I did what I should have done at the beginning and made the sins of the son a whole lot more reprehensible than the sins of the father.”
Years ago, le Carré considered writing a proper autobiography. Knowing that by heritage and breeding he had trouble sorting memories from fantasies, he hired two detectives to check his recollections. “I’m a liar,” he explained to them. “Born to lying, bred to it, trained to it by an industry that lies for a living, practiced in it as a novelist.”
His plan was clever: He would write his memoir on the left-hand pages and have the factual record of the detectives on the right. Le Carré plied the detectives with tales of how Ronnie conned his way around the world, including the names of people in his posse who did jail time for him and would do it again. Alas, the detectives could never pin down the reality of the elusive Ronnie, and le Carré abandoned the project.
So instead we have this, a delightful collection of charming and occasionally insightful tales, which climaxes in a chapter that could have been, and one hopes someday will be, the focus of a truly profound John le Carré book
 Walter Isaacson, The New York Times. A version of this review appears in print on September 18, 2016, on page BR15 of the Sunday Book Review with the headline: “From Spy to Novelist.” Downloaded November 18, 2016. Walter Isaacson, the chief executive of the Aspen Institute, is a former editor of Time. He has written biographies of Henry Kissinger, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and Steve Jobs.
 Sisman, Adam (2015). John le Carré: The Biography. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf Canada [LCCN: 2015514269]