A work by John le Carré is like an intimate conversation at a club, say, or a restaurant: anecdotes well told, then brilliantly expanded; “entertaining” is barely a good enough word for it. His memoir, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” is pure le Carré: dry, witty, ironic and deeply intelligent, displaying all the sharpened tools of the British literary novelist. You could be reading Anthony Powell or Graham Greene, the pleasure of it is the same. As you sit and absorb these tales of his life, you may soon find yourself murmuring: “We’ll have two more whiskeys, please.”
Before he became a master of the spy novel, le Carré was himself a spy, operating under his real name, David Cornwell. He was recruited by the Intelligence Corps of the British Army from Bern University in Switzerland in 1950, at the age of 17, “doing what the trade calls a little of this and that,” as he puts it. Mostly he concentrated on the interrogation of Germans who had fled East German rule. He returned to England in 1952 to study at Oxford, graduated with first-class honors and, while teaching French and German at Eton, joined the domestic security service, MI5, where he used all the usual clandestine tactics — tapping telephones, reading mail, running agents — in operations against the British far left.
By 1961, having joined the foreign intelligence service, MI6, he had written his first novel, “Call for the Dead.” In 1963 he published “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” a thundering success. This set the pattern for his novels to come — he has published 23 to date — which are definitely not thrillers, more psychological and political novels: no shootouts, no car chases, no femme fatales. In 1964, le Carré left the service to become a full-time novelist and set out in search of people and situations that had the proper moral ambiguity to drive his books. “Spying and novel writing are made for each other,” he writes. “Both call for a ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal.”
He does his research, meeting people who inform his writing or become recognizable characters in his books. And what people they are, named and described throughout “The Pigeon Tunnel” in le Carré’s knife-edge prose. In the early 1960s, le Carré worked as a diplomat at the British Embassy in Bonn, Germany, and interviewed various German bureaucrats who had served the Nazi regime and were now employed by the West German government. One of these was Hans Globke, the national security adviser to Chancellor Konrad Adenaur — the same Globke who had served in World War II under Adolf Eichmann in the Nazi Office of Jewish Affairs. As Western nations pivoted from the fight against the Nazis to the battles of the Cold War, they found that the people who had worked against the Soviet Union under Hitler were the ones who knew and understood the communists best. Globke was a particularly nasty specimen and since the war had worked to restore back pay and pension rights to former Nazis.
In the early ’60s, le Carré was contacted by Ivan Serov, a true Soviet monster who would serve as the director of the KGB. Serov arranged a meeting at le Carré’s apartment in Bonn, to play music on his cello, to be followed by dinner. Le Carré duly reported the contact, which could have meant that Serov was considering defecting to the West. Of the contact, le Carré says: “Rule one of the Cold War: nothing, absolutely nothing, is what it seems. Everyone has a second motive, if not the third. A Soviet official openly invites himself and his wife to the house of a Western diplomat he doesn’t even know? Who’s making a pass at who in this situation?” In the end, nothing came of the contact and Serov returned to the Soviet Union, but the event was a step on the road to the moral ambiguity of the Cold War that served le Carré the novelist throughout his work.
In 2006, le Carré met Murat Kurnaz, who had served five years at Guantanamo. “In my novel ‘A Most Wanted Man’ there is a German-born Turkish man of Murat’s age, religion and background,” le Carré writes. “He is called Melik, and pays a similar price for sins he did not commit. In his bulk, speech and manner he bears a strong resemblance to Murat Kurnaz.” Le Carré visited Phnom Penh in Cambodia, before it fell to the Khmer Rouge, and there met a pilot who flew supplies to the beleaguered Cambodian army. “One pilot I flew with entertained himself by instructing me how to land the plane if he was too high on morphine to do it himself. In the novel I was researching later titled ‘The Honourable Schoolboy,’ I called him Charlie Marshall.”
This method, traveling far and wide, always to political hot spots, from Beirut to Laos, and using the people he meets as characters in his novels, is the engine that powers “The Pigeon Tunnel.” For instance, to write “The Little Drummer Girl,” he wanted the Palestinian point of view, so he worked through contacts to meet Yasser Arafat. He found him at a celebration for Palestinian war orphans.
“Pirouetting among his beloved orphans, Arafat seems to lose himself in their scent. He has taken hold of the tail end of his keffiyeh and is whirling it like Alec Guinness playing Fagin in the movie of ‘Oliver Twist.’ His expression is of a man transported. Is he laughing or weeping? Either way, the emotion in him is so evident that it barely matters. Now he is signalling to me to grab hold of his waist. Somebody grabs hold of mine. Now the whole lot of us — high command, camp followers, ecstatic children — and no doubt a convocation of the world’s spies, since probably nobody in history has been more thoroughly spied on than Arafat — have formed a crocodile with our leader at its head.”
All these narratives have a common underlying theme, one suggested but not spelled out in the preface to the memoir. In Monte Carlo, le Carré visited a sporting club where tunnels had been dug beneath the lawn. Pigeons, born and trapped on the roof, were sent into the tunnels. “Their job was to flutter their way along the pitch-dark tunnel until they emerged in the Mediterranean sky as targets for well-lunched sporting gentlemen who were standing or lying in wait with their shotguns.” Pigeons that survived returned to the roof where they had been born and where they were again trapped and again sent down the tunnels. Le Carré closes the preface by saying, “Quite why this image has haunted me for so long is something the reader is perhaps better able to judge than I am.”
Which means? You could guess le Carré believes that the betrayals and duplicities throughout his 23 books are an integral part of human nature and likely to remain so. But the lesson is better put in the anecdote without a punch line. And right there is a very good novelist at work.
Alan Furst writes historical espionage fiction. His latest book is “A Hero of France.”
By John le Carré
Viking. 310 pp. $28