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Review: John le Carre's 'Pigeon Tunnel' a memoir that reads like his spy novels

John le Carré's new book has everything you'd expect from a le Carré novel: starchy Brits, tough Russians, foreign landscapes, lost causes, financial chicanery, self-delusion, deceit and betrayal.

But here's the thing: le Carré's new book is not a novel.

It's his life — or, at least, the version he's willing to tell of his life.

Like spy-turned-novelist colleagues from Ian Fleming to Jason Matthews, le Carré often has drawn on his years in MI5 and MI6, the British intelligence analogues to the FBI and CIA, for his fiction. And that's true again in The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life.

But the memoir, told in a quilt of out-of-order episodes, includes less than you might expect from le Carré's years as a spy. For one thing, it wasn't that long a career. And there's still material that's off limits because le Carré, the pen name of David Cornwell, remains bound by London's Official Secrets Act. (Although, le Carré notes, that didn't seem to stop Graham Greene. For a while, le Carré scanned the papers every morning for news of Greene's arrest over tradecraft he revealed in Our Man in Havana. Instead, Greene ended up being awarded the Order of Merit.)

And, whether out of discretion or sheer caginess, le Carré doesn't allow that he has much to offer about his early years in Bonn with MI6. Working under the cover of a junior diplomat, he handled ex-Nazis and encountered sketchy Eastern bloc cultural attaches, but did not, in this book anyway, do a lot of cloak-and-dagger adventuring.

Still, he brings the stuff, often with humor and an unexpected twist. My favorite anecdote is about the group in Bonn that wasted no time sizing up the young David Cornwell and sussing out his true identity. It wasn't the Stasi.

No, it was the wives of the British career Foreign Service officers, a sorority that "maintained as beady a watch on their husbands' rivals for promotion, medals and eventual knighthoods as any KGB researcher." Those women looked at Cornwell, with his absurdly fluent German and his total lack of Foreign Office credentials, "and they knew they needn't worry about me anymore." He was no diplomat. Instead, he was what the diplomats called, the air-quotes always present, a "Friend."

Another nice tidbit: le Carré says his best writing coaches were his classically educated senior officers at MI5. They kicked his intelligence memos back to him with fierce notes ("redundant" — "omit" — "justify" — "sloppy") on word choice, sentence structure and clarity of thought. "No editor I have since encountered was so exacting," he writes, "or so right."

One theme in this book, like all his others, is that you can't readily believe what you see or hear. And le Carré provides some early disclaimers that should give you pause about relying on everything in these pages as gospel. "These are true stories told from memory," he writes, with a few names changed but no madeup tales. "Disguised where necessary, yes. Falsified, emphatically not."

Still, if le Carré engaged, as he says, in "only ever the lowest form of secret life," what does that leave?

Quite a lot.

The publication of The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in 1963, while le Carré was still with the Foreign Service, set his reputation and opened doors to him for more than a half-century since. As a former spy turned celebrity author, he mingles with Hollywood A-listers, pursues literary research with a post-Soviet gangster amid pounding nightclub music, immerses himself in refugee communities, introduces the real-life inspirations for several fictional characters and calls upon heads of state.

At one point, le Carré is stunned to learn the Italian president has invited him to a lunch where he's expected to lecture the heads of Rome's intelligence agencies on their business. At another lunch, Margaret Thatcher harbours no such illusions. When le Carré emotionally pleads the case of stateless Palestinians, the Iron Lady cuts him off: "Don't give me sob stories. Every day people appeal to my emotions. You can't govern that way."

Le Carré tells his story out of chronological order partly to keep his father from overshadowing the story that follows — a prospect that would have pleased Ronnie Cornwell no end. Le Carré's dad was a self-absorbed and unrepentant con man, adulterer, gambler, deadbeat and moocher. A "crisis addict," the son recalls, a theatrical sobber and "a scene grabber."

"He was a delusional enchanter and a persuader who saw himself as God's golden boy, and he wrecked a lot of people's lives," le Carré writes. "Graham Greene tells us that childhood is the credit balance of the writer. By that measure, at least, I was born a millionaire."

Ronnie Cornwell thought nothing of sending his 16-year-old son to Paris to collect 500 pounds from a Latin American count who informed the lad that it was his father who was behind on the payments, not the other way around — then offered his wife to the teenager for the evening. "Spying did not introduce me to secrecy," le Carré writes. "Evasion and deception were the necessary weapons of my childhood."

No wonder, then, that le Carré is so good on betrayal in books like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. It's a bleak vision, but one that resonates across state ideology, as le Carré learns after meeting KGB veteran Yevgeny Primakov. The man is a fan, and he wants one of le Carré's books.

Only later does le Carré learn which of his characters the old spymaster relates to most. It's not Karla, the strategic and resilient plotter in the middle of Moscow Centre's webs. It is Karla's counterpart in London, George Smiley — cheated upon by his wife, deceived by his friend, unable to trust his colleagues. Cleaning his glasses with the fat end of his tie, he is doubtful, withdrawn, seemingly befuddled and, ultimately, sadly victorious.

In any le Carré book, there's always something to be second-guessed by both the characters and the reader. That's part of the fun. In that way, The Pigeon Tunnel may not be so different than the novels. It certainly reads just as well.

Richard Danielson covers Tampa City Hall for the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at rdanielson@tampabay.com. Follow @Danielson_Times.

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life

By John le Carré

Viking, 320 pages, $28

Review: John le Carre's 'Pigeon Tunnel' a memoir that reads like his spy novels 11/10/16 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 9, 2016 4:51pm]
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