I discovered John Le Carré in Bangkok’s Chatuchak Market. I picked out a battered paperback Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy from a tiny used book stall. It looked as though it had been round Southeast Asia in a few backpacks, but the broken spine and multicolour stains didn’t stop me devouring over a Saturday away from work.
It introduced me to the murky Cold War of George Smiley and his adherents, who murder and betray each other for purposes that none of them ever appear able to articulate. Since then, I’ve followed Le Carré and his characters through the end of the Cold War (Single & Single, The Secret Pilgrim) to the law-skating businessmen who filled the gap it left behind (The Night Manager, The Constant Gardner) and into the global war on loosely defined terror (Absolute Friends, A Most Wanted Man).
I find his novels far superior to most thrillers, not only because his characters are deep and nuanced but because they were so much more vivid than anything they rub covers with in the bookshop. They also offer a commentary on the contemporary world. I first became aware of the upheavals in the Caucasus when I read Our Game, which described the Ingush opposition to Moscow some time before the upheavals in neighbouring Chechnya became frontline news.
Yet David Cornwell, the man behind the John Le Carré penname, has always been difficult to pin down. In an age when publishers push authors into the spotlight, Le Carré doesn’t give many interviews and doesn’t give much away in them. It’s no secret that he worked for MI6 in the 1960s but he’s never said much about it. I wanted to know how he came to write the novels that had taken me around the world’s trouble spots so I couldn’t wait to read his own account.
Like the writer that he is, and perhaps the former spook as well, Le Carré is a ghostly presence in his own story. The Pigeon Tunnel is more a collection of anecdotes than a coherent memoir, and he gives far more space to the roles of other people in his life than his own. Some are good people, such as Sir Alec Guiness who played George Smiley in the TV adaptation of the Karla trilogy. Some are not so good, such as a Russian gangster who Le Carré briefly spoke to in a Moscow nightclub. Some are diabolical, such as Rupert Murdoch. Most, like Le Carré’s fictional characters, are described with too much nuance and sympathy to be so neatly described.
For me, the most interesting stories involved the pursuit of his own novels. He describes his horror at visiting Hong Kong in the days before Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy was issued and discovering a tunnel to Kowloon that he hadn’t known about. It wouldn’t have made much difference to the novel, but he became so determined not to make such a mistake again that he spent his middle age visiting the parts of the world that most of us would pay a fortune to stay away from. He was writing The Honourable Schoolboy at the time, which is set in Hong Kong and Southeast Asia. Putting action to resolution, he talked a journalist into letting him on to a flight to Phnom Penh in Cambodia to watch the Cambodian army’s last ditch defence against the Khmer Rouge.
I most appreciated the chapters describing his pursuit of what became The Little Drummer Girl, from a clandestine prison in Israel to dancing with Yasser Arafat in a refugee camp to watching the ‘Nocturnal Orchestra’ of firefights from the presidential suite of Beirut’s best hotel, traditionally given to new guests who didn’t realise how exposed it was.
If there’s anything missing, it’s any account of his own time in MI6, which he refers to with great self-deprecation and no detail. The only direct reference to it is through his conversations with Nicholas Elliott, who was simultaneously one of the most accomplished secret agents Britain has ever admitted to, one of the greatest dupes of defector Kim Philby and in Le Carré’s words, a man ‘who looked like A P.G. Wodehouse man-about-town, and spoke like one’. Yet he only describes his acquaintance with Elliott after they had both retired from MI6. Perhaps his training ingrained discretion into him so firmly that it’s lasted longer than most of the countries he might have been spying on, or perhaps it’s simply his personality.