John le Carré (the pen name for novelist David John Moore Cornwell) has had a long career. He turned 86 last week, but started writing in the late 1950s. He most recent novel, a sequel to The Spy Who Came In From the Cold was released in September.
Part of what interested me from the reviews of The Pigeon Tunnel was how le Carré knowingly plays with the idea of memory. Several places he suggests that his recounting is what he remembers, but then comments that others remember the situation differently.
In one of the later chapters, mostly about his father, he says that he paid two investigators to give background on his father. He wanted to write his memory of events and then have the ‘actual’ events as recounted by the investigators on a corresponding page to show the difference. The investigators were not able to find the level of detail that he needed to carry that idea out. But that hint of how le Carré views memory and reality give a sense of what he was trying to do in this memoir.
Le Carré can tell a story. As I was reading or listening (I alternated back and forth between Kindle and Audiobook with le Carré narrating the audiobook), I was almost always engaged. But I would put it down and not be super excited to pick it up again. So I spent several weeks working through The Pigeon Tunnel.
As with almost every memoir there are people and stories that are mentioned that hold great importance to the author that do not quite get communicated to the reader. Some of the name dropping went completely over my head.
But I thought the end of The Pigeon Tunnel was especially good. His discussion of his father (a con man who spent time in jail and was wanted in many countries) was particularly insightful and interesting. That led to a discussion about his own education being covered at one point by a rich friend because his mother disappeared when he was a child and his father was unreliable (and a crook). Because of the friend loaning him the money, le Carré was able to finish his education and get the job in the intelligence world which led to him become a novelist. In a similar way, le Carré connects a story of him helping someone else to become a doctor by loaning him the money for his education. Those types of stories about how we are related matter. Le Carré’s stories are often cynical, but not everything about him is cynical.
In the end, I am glad I picked up The Pigeon Tunnel. There are a number of stories that show where inspiration for a character or a scene or a book came from. Many of those books I have not yet read. But I am inspired to pick up more of his books. That being said, I think for many people, I would recommend his novels over this memoir. If you have not read many, or any, of John le Carré’s novels, I would recommend you start there, probably with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. For those that have read many of his novels, this is probably worth picking up.