Sunday 4 December 2016

Revelling in mystique of untold secrets

Memoir: The Pigeon Tunnel, John le Carre, Viking, hdbk, 320 pages, €20.00

Gaby Wood

Published 02/10/2016 | 02:30

Piper calling his own tune: English novelist John le Carré
Piper calling his own tune: English novelist John le Carré
The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carre

John le Carré's cagey, clever, score-settling memoir is very revealing - in ways he never intended.

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In the final pages of The Pigeon Tunnel - a book generally understood to be his memoir - John le Carré tells a story about a green Chubb safe. When the British Secret Service was due to move to Lambeth, London, in 1964, it was agreed that the safe built into the Chief's private office must be opened. No one had the key. No surviving Chief had ever looked inside it. The person who had installed it was one of the founders of Bletchley Park: "Heaven alone knew what wasn't in that green safe," le Carré writes. The service burglar picks the lock. The safe is empty.

Now assumed to be a decoy, it is prised from the wall. Behind it is a pair of trousers once worn by Hitler's deputy, Rudolf Hess. A handwritten inscription reads: "Please analyse because may give an idea of the state of the German textile industry".

The Pigeon Tunnel isn't as bathetic as that story, but it is the same kind of joke. "These are true stories told from memory," he writes by way of introduction, "to which you are entitled to ask, what is truth, and what is memory to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life?" The notion of a decoy is always present. Le Carré - or David Cornwell, as he is really called - is now 84, and the message of his first work of autobiographical non-fiction is: You've waited this long to hear from me, what makes you think I can be trusted?

Le Carré began writing novels when he was a spy and continued to mine that territory, though his official career in the secret service lasted no more than five years. (He resigned in 1964, after the publication of his first bestseller, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. He was 33.) Ever since, people have assumed his work must have continued in some shadier capacity, but only, perhaps, because his novels were so convincing. The reader who approaches this book as a seeker of the hidden may begin to feel a bit silly. If le Carré knew more about the KGB than his fictional character George Smiley did, he wouldn't tell us - and in any case, there's no reason to suppose he does. He is a novelist. What he does know is how to keep his readers in suspense.

Readers of le Carré's oeuvre will be intrigued to know about the real people on whom characters or plot points were based in The Honourable Schoolboy, A Most Wanted Man, Single and Single, The Constant Gardener and The Little Drummer Girl. Dima in Our Kind of Traitor was based on a real Dima, but "in name only".

Le Carré's voice is gripping, whatever the tale, and his eye for human detail is as sharp in fact as it is in fiction (the talcum-powder smell of Yasser Arafat's beard; a Russian diplomat's "spongy hand"). He is magnificent on Germany in particular: the cumulative portrait of its post-war contradictions is drawn from a position of scholarship and love. And he seems to be having most fun when portraying his interlocutors in amused free indirect speech: the "classless" carpetbagger, the slurred war correspondent, the over-eager Russian cellist. A natural writer of novels, le Carré is at his best when showing his hand.

The book is governed by a sense of doubleness. "Spying was forced on me from birth," le Carré writes, and his double lives are not always the obvious ones. His "indecently fluent" German perhaps says more about the British establishment life he slipped out of when he was young. Sometimes, when he's afraid, le Carré uses his fictional characters for protection. Much as the photojournalist Margaret Bourke-White was relieved to be able to put a camera between herself and the horrors of the concentration camps, le Carré, when conducting research in war zones, made his notes in character.

A swift and over-decorous apology to his wives is all we get of his extra-marital affairs - and, indeed, more or less all we get of any reference to family life. (Le Carré has four sons.)

"But what's the truth? What's memory?" le Carré writes again towards the end. "We should find another name for the way we see past events that are still alive in us." The chapter in question is the best - a heartbreaking account of Ronnie, his violent con-man father, and Olive, the mother who abandoned him. The scene le Carré is recalling is one in which he waves at his father from outside the walls of a prison. "Daddy! Daddy!" he calls out, as he holds his mother's gloved hand.

According to his father - the model for Rick Rym in A Perfect Spy - this never happened: "Sheer invention from start to finish, son". But the invention or memory or whatever it was proved formative. Le Carré explains that he has put the chapter about his father at the end because, "much as he would like to, I didn't want him elbowing his way to the top of the bill".

It might have helped to read about Ronnie and Olive earlier. Le Carré refers at one point to someone with whom "shrinks would have had a field day", and he is no doubt eager to avoid that fate for himself. But until we get to his childhood, The Pigeon Tunnel is revealing in ways he may not mean it to be. We learn that when he comes "face to face with people of power", his "critical faculties go out of the window".

As if to prove it, a number of chapters simply relate brushes with greatness that le Carré the novelist, rather than the autobiographer, would have done something with. Heads of state are "kind" about his work. A Nobel Prize-winner, he discovers, has never read his books. More than one man is referred to as a "knight of the realm". Meals are "private dinners" in Hampstead (is there a different kind of dinner one can have in one's own home?). He has a petty score to settle with British politician Malcolm Rifkind. At one point, he refers to "views that, insofar as I have any, fly directly in the face of my own". If readers remember that remark by the end of the book, they may be perplexed by its disingenuousness. Le Carré has plenty of views, and despite his charm, he can sometimes come across as close to the "choleric colonel in Angmering-on-Sea" described by Tina Brown when he wrote a letter of complaint to her New Yorker magazine.

This memoir comes just a year after Adam Sisman's biography, which le Carré sanctioned, so it's worth wondering what sort of gesture this publication represents. Not all of it is even new - eight chapters consist of previously published material.

In The Pigeon Tunnel, le Carré mentions that "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". He doesn't mention Sisman by name, and later on he takes a potshot at Sisman's previous biographical subject, Hugh Trevor-Roper.

In the matter of narrative drive, of course, le Carré wins hands down. Sisman's is a meticulous book, but it can't compete with that of the raconteur himself. Nevertheless, we might pause to observe what particular distinctions tell us.

For instance, a footnote in Sisman's book refers to a lunch le Carré had with Rupert Murdoch. In le Carré's book, this scene forms the basis of an entire chapter. Le Carré sends a fax to Murdoch complaining about a factually inaccurate piece written about him in The Times. He demands an apology and lunch.

A few days before le Carré and Murdoch met, the newspaper tycoon Robert Maxwell had been found dead in mysterious circumstances. Over lunch, Sisman's footnote tells us, Murdoch asked le Carré: "Who do you think killed Maxwell?" Here's le Carré account of the same scene: "But enough of small talk. He is staring straight at me and the sunny smile has vanished. 'Who killed Bob Maxwell?' he demands."

The discrepancy doesn't seem major, but the effect is very different. In Sisman's version, the novelist is just a man being asked for his opinion in the course of conversation. In le Carré's own account, he is treated as an expert or insider - someone being grilled by a powerful man in search of the truth.

We might draw two, perhaps obvious, conclusions: that documentation is less interesting to le Carré than drama; and that - much as he may protest - the spy novelist is happy to further suspicion he's party to significant secrets. "For want of a better subject, I talk about myself," he tells us at one point, describing yet another dinner at which he is paid too little attention. On this sort of occasion, it's easy to prefer John le Carré to David Cornwell.

As a writer, he's never stumped for a subject. "Out of the secret world I once knew, I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit," le Carré eloquently explains. Which is why he's unlikely to share the last words of the double agent for whom he still feels such antagonism. "God," said Kim Philby on his deathbed, "I'm bored".

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