The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carré (Viking, £20)
This unusual autobiography comes barely a year after Adam Sisman’s doorstop examination of the life of John le Carré, and though this new volume re-treads some familiar ground it stands alone as a deeply personal and touching account of his life. With a reputation for being combative, here le Carré seems more willing to accept his own shortcomings.
We revisit his early flight from England to university in Berne, through to his recruitment when still a callow youth into what he makes clear were the very lowest rungs of British intelligence. He recalls his junior spy duties back in London, which included guiding a group of visiting German dignitaries around the west end’s cathouses. He also translated for senior German diplomats in their meetings with British politicians, including with Harold Macmillan.
The anecdotes move from the Cold War era through a frenzy of book- and script-writing, to meetings with Yasser Arafat, Putin-era Russian mobsters, former KGB heads, Congolese warlords—and with his own mother, who abandoned him as a child, fleeing le Carré’s abusive criminal father. The chapter on “Ronnie” is brutal.
It’s an elegiac, dinner party conversation of a book, and no less enjoyable a read for it. As a portrait of a writer’s life and world view, it has undeniable power. It is also unique among le Carré’s work: he has finally written a book that can’t be filmed.