Review of John le Carré's "The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life"

tags: book review, John Le Carre, The Pigeon Tunnel

Murray Polner is HNN's senior book review editor.

John Le Carré's forceful and absorbing book The Pigeon Tunnel is a quasi-memoir and predecessor to a possible future and fuller version. In a series of recollections he says virtually nothing about his two wives and four sons while leaving his last chapter, the longest in the book, to the people who have colored his life, his conman, thief and twice-convicted father Ronnie, and Olive, his mother, who fled her abusive husband, and abandoned five year old David (Le Carré's real name is David Cornwell), leaving reviewers and critics to analyze forever the psychological price of parental desertion and absence of love.

Devotees of his unique genre of novels, as I am, admire Le Carré for his exemplary spy stories that evoke the lies and myths of our ambiguous, confrontational  and bewildering times. Here he writes about  men and women, ordinary and Very Important, like  Yasser Arafat, Andrei Sakharov and Elena Bonner, Rupert Murdoch, Josef Brodsky, Nicholas Elliott, Le Carré's fellow spy and double agent Kim Philby's best friend, a Major Kauffmann, the woman warden of an Israeli  supermax prison for convicted Palestinians and their allies, Alec Guinness, his brilliant if diffident and reticent George Smiley in Tinker, Tailor Soldier Spy who detests "flattery and mistrusts its praise,"  and Hollywood's  Richard Burton, Martin Ritt, Sydney Pollack  and Fritz Lang.

"Men and women of power drew me because they were here, and because I wanted to know what had made then tick.... Only afterwards, back in my hotel bedroom, did I fish out my mangled notepad and attempt to make sense of what I had heard or seen."

 Murat Kurnaz a Turkish-German raised in Germany was no one special and quite powerless except he was a classic victim of the disastrous American invasion of Iraq. Accused without trial or evidence of being a terrorist, he was shipped to Guantanamo, held for five years, and Le Carré writes,"electrocuted, beaten senseless, waterboarded and hung from a hook" by low-level American thugs acting on orders from American thugs in high places. With German help Kurnaz was eventually proven innocent. Le Carré spent time in Bremen with Kurnaz and describes how he was finally freed with only a pair of jeans, underwear and a T-shirt, guarded on the flight home by ten US soldiers who then offered handcuffs to the Germans who met their plane, "to which," comments Le Carre, with obvious pleasure, "the German officer, to his eternal glory, replied: 'He has committed no crime. Here in Germany he is a free man.'"

For three years Le Carré served in Britain's spy service during the Cold War, mainly in Austria and Germany. "Having made a negligible contribution" he resigned to write full-time after the extraordinary success of his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. Looking back, now well in his eighties, he offers his personal "Rule One of the Cold War," just as true in today's emerging New Cold War: "Nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it it seems. Everyone has a second motive, if not a third."

Spies, he tells us, "spy because they can," whether Putin's Russia or Obama's US, and their spy agencies love seeing themselves mythologized, which is something Le Carré avoids. Neither the British nor the Americans predicted the fall of the Berlin Wall or the collapse of the USSR. But he reserves a special dig at his own country, "But the Brits are a class apart. Forget our dismal showing in the Cold War when the KGB out-witted and out-penetrated us at every turn."

Having served in Bonn and Hamburg, he wrote A Small Town in Germany which criticized the British Embassy and the Bonn interim government, but he admits to having mistakenly predicted the emergence of a far-right post-Nazi Germany. Still, he captures the post-WW II Cold War rivalry with the Soviet Union when the US welcomed Nazi war criminals.  Hitler's former military intelligence Chief General Reinhard Gehlen was embraced by the CIA, "the pampered favorite of his new best friends, the victorious Americans." And more. "Old comrades from Nazi days form the core of his staff. Controlled [American] amnesia relegates the cost to history." The US housed Gehlen in Martin Bormann's mansion and "gave him his rations, and clean bedding, and his Nazi-era files and card indices, and his old Nazi-era staff, while uncoordinated teams of Nazi hunters chased around after Martin Bormann, and the world tried to absorb the indescribable horrors of Belsen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Auschwitz, and the rest."

He turns his attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which resulted in a cinematic mishmash of The Little Drummer Girl, and where the film's Diane Keaton's character was inspired by his radical younger half-sister Charlotte Cornwell. He interviews some regional specialists and then Yasser Arafat invites him to visit at a meeting where he is scheduled to speak but never does and he never gets to interview him.  It's 1982, Israel has invaded Lebanon, Arafat and the PLO have been expelled from Lebanon, and their next refuge is Tunisia where Le Carré chases after him for that interview but never gets to talk with the hard-to-pin down Palestinian.

Still looking for background material for The Little Drummer Girl, he returns to Israel.  Because of his acquaintance with a high-ranking general he is allowed to visit a top secret prison in the Negev desert to interview Brigitte, a radical young German woman, who with a group of Palestinians tried and failed to shoot down an El Al plane as it neared Nairobi's Kenyatta airport. Possibly taken with her, he describes her as a "tall, beautiful woman in prison tunics ... her long blonde hair combed freely down her back. Even her prison tunic becomes her." He says he wanted to talk about her motives, none of which she cared to share with him save to denounce Germany, some of  her family and the US, while mentioning the influence of Jurgen Habermas , Herbert Marcuse and Frantz Fanon.

After Brigitte is returned to her cell, Major Kauffmann, perhaps, he suggests, an assumed name, asks him, "Did you get what you came for," and then adds, "I only speak English with her. German, never. Not one word. When she speaks German, I cannot trust myself. You see, I was in Dachau."

Invited to speak at Moscow State University, the questions from students are about spying, the Cold War, ratting on one's colleagues.(Le Carré mentions early on that when he was with M-I5 they had him spy on left wing Oxford students.) A final question comes from a woman student. "Please, Mr. Le Carré, What do you think of Marx and Lenin, please? Greeted with laughter, he comes back, 'I love them both.' " "It doesn't strike me as my best line, but the audience treats it with prolonged applause and howls of merriment." Later, students ask about the once-banned Spy Who Came in from the Cold, which many tell him they had read. But, he asks, weren't they scared  reading forbidden books, and again howls of laughter.  (When I visited my WWII surviving family in Russia in the sixties, my two uncles, former Red Army conscripts, stood on their barely standing balcony and loudly cursed Lenin and Stalin's memory. "Are you scared," I  asked. My surviving family members just laughed.)

Back in London, he lunches with the exiled Soviet poet Joseph Brodsky, thought of by admirers as "the very soul of Russia." Brodsky,  who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, once wrote an appreciative essay about Anna Akhmatova, the great Russian poet who Andre Zhdanov, the Leningrad Party boss, once called "a cross between a nun and a whore" but who has left nothing of note for future Russians to remember him by except repression and cruelty.

Obsessed with spies and spying he spends time with  Nicholas Elliott, Kim Philby's best friend. Elliott had worked for the British spy service until 1969.  About Philby, Le Carré writes: "The scale of Philby's betrayal is barely imaginable  to anyone who has not been in the business. In Eastern Europe alone, dozens and perhaps hundreds of  British agents were imprisoned, tortured and shot." (There were other British double agents he omits, especially George Blake.) While Le Carré recommends Ben Mcintyre's first-rate account of Philby in A Spy Among Friends, he reminds readers of another  famous spy, James Jesse Angleton, the "delusional alcoholic head of the CIA's counter-intelligence arm, who convinced himself that the red web of the KGB had spread itself into every corner of the Western world. While stationed in Washington, Philby had counseled him, over liquid games of chess, introducing him to the art of running double agents."

He travels to Dublin where Spy is being filmed. Hollywood director Martin Ritt, once blacklisted by American Torquemadas in Washington and Hollywood, preferred hiring former blacklisted actors Sam Wanamaker and Claire Bloom. Mention anyone's name from that mad and ugly era and Ritt instantly responds, "Where was he when we needed him?"  About Richard Burton, the film's star, Le Carré is generous, portraying him as "a literate, serious artist, a self--educated polymath with appetites and flaws that in one way or another we all share."

But for me the most meaningful part of The Pigeon Tunnel occurred after he joined a group celebrating François Bizot, "the only Westerner to have been taken prisoner by Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge and survive" and whose memoir, The Gate, Le Carré drew on in part  for The Secret Pilgrim. It was there he met Jean-Paul Kauffmann, a French journalist, who had written The Dark Room at Longwood about Napoleon's years in exile.

Kauffmann had been grabbed in Beirut by Hezbollah gunmen he described as "conceited fools, brutal cynics who used religion and the credulity of young militants to satisfy their appetite for power." In three years of captivity Kauffman had been tortured, feared for his life, felt deserted by all. He wrote Le Carré that he had found a tattered paperback copy of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold in one of his secret prisons. In that book Kauffmann said he "found reasons to hope.  The most important is a voice, a presence. Yours. The jubilation of a writer who describes a cruel and colorless world and delights in rendering it so grey and hopeless. You feel it almost physically. Someone is talking to you, you are no longer alone. In my jail, I was no longer abandoned. A man came into my cell with his words and his vision of the world. Someone shared their power with me. I would make it through...."

No more powerful and praiseworthy words about a writer and his book were ever written.

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