The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life ★★★★★
John le Carré
Genre(s) | Nonfiction, Memoir, History, Espionage
Goodreads Rating | 4.08
Humpo Show Rating | 5.00
Published | 2016
Publisher | Viking
I received a copy from Penguin Random House
A Treasure Island-worthy book…
David Cornwell, otherwise known as John le Carré, has penned a memoir that contains a museum of stories from his days in the service of British Intelligence during the Cold War, to his war tourist days, and his successful career as a novelist. His stories take him from war-torn Cambodia to Beirut, Russia before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, le Carré has written about a plethora of historical events in which he focuses on individuals that he was involved with, and how they influenced his fictional characters in his catalogue of work.
I have been sitting and looking back and forth between my laptop screen and my copy of The Pigeon Tunnel, wondering, contemplating how to do justice to this fascinatingly readable book, that is as interesting as his fiction. Le Carré is a master story-teller, and we, are his captivated audience who lap up his beguiling tales that focus on spies, politicians, writers, war reporters and actors that have appeared at some point in his life, leaving an irrefutable mark on him, a mark that he has transferred to paper. And I for one, am, extremely grateful he has done so.
There are not many books that are in my possession that I consider to be Treasure Island-worthy. The select list contains Harry Potter, His Dark Materials, Sherlock Holmes and The Shadow of the Wind. The Pigeon Tunnel is the newest addition to this exclusive group, and it stands out as being the only nonfiction book among them. The abundance of enrapturing stories that recall all manner of people; from elusive terrorist-turned-statesman Yasser Arafat (leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization), to Kim Philby (British traitor, double-agent and Soviet defector), and even universally famous names like Richard Burton and Stanley Kubrick. This book has it all.
His adventures as a member of British Intelligence, as a war tourist, and a writer, adventures that cover half a century of modern history and the political discourse that accompanies it, give an insight into the life of man that has found himself in tense, frightening and enthralling situations across the globe with all manner of people. The espionage history, politics in multiple countries, and the wars that occurred in them are given fresh information from le Carré’s perspective, as his exploits take him to people of importance and the information they divulge makes for interesting reading and education. My world history has been aided by these stories as I ended up researching periods and people from history to provide myself a context that allowed me to fully immerse myself in le Carré’s stories. I became better-read on the people, politics and wars concerning Cambodia, Panama, Congo and many others. His vocabulary is exemplary and I even found myself a few times looking up words for their meaning. Not only have I had my profundities in history and politics knowledge enhanced, my vocabulary has too!
I will discuss two of my favourite chapters, and a couple of passages which I will always remember:
A chapter called The Biggest Bears in the Garden enlightened me to a historic and political decision that I had no previous knowledge of and shocked me, as well as a conversation between le Carré and a KGB Chairman concerning the wars in Afghanistan. This chapter appealed to my interest in all things to do with espionage. Vadim Bakatin, the last head of the KGB, gives illuminating insight into the decision-making of Saddam Hussein, George H. W. Bush and Margaret Thatcher. He was appointed in 1993 to dismantle the service into separate organisations, but due to political reasons, he was unable to fulfill his aim of purging the KGB of its autocratic tendencies, and to create a new socially aware spy service that is fit for purpose in the reconstructed democratic Russia. Below is a passage in le Carré’s book that is my favourite from this chapter:
Bakatin “performed an act of such glasnost that it remains unique in the annals of intelligence services across the globe. Within weeks of taking office, he handed to Robert Strauss, the United States Ambassador to Russia, a chart, together with a users’ handbook, of listening devices that had been installed by the KGB’s audio team in the fabric of the new building designated to replace the existing US Embassy. According to Strauss, he performed this gesture ‘unconditionally, out of a sense of cooperation and goodwill.'”
Bakatin is one of many Intelligence figures that feature throughout Pigeon Tunnel, but le Carré also includes many individuals that may, or may not have featured in the public eye, and their unimaginable stories that accompanies them. Two people that have lived two completely different, but extraordinary lives, are the focus of two successive chapters, the two individuals in question are Murat Kurnaz and Yvette Pierpaoli. Kurnaz is a Turkish citizen residing in Germany who was held in extrajudicial detention at Guantanamo Bay where he was subjected to electrocution, beatings, waterboarding and he was hung from a hook, yet the accusations were groundless and he was later released. The chapter expands on life in Guantanamo, Kurnaz’s mentality and his subsequent life as a writer following his release. He also provides le Carré with inspiration for a character called Melik that features in A Most Wanted Man.
The second person, Yvette Pierpaoli, is one of the most incredible people I have ever read about. Le Carré honours her in The Constant Gardener. The chapter dedicated to Yvette, who was a French humanitarian, conveys her fearlessness, conviction and heart that typified her life’s work. Her Woman of a Thousand Children has now been added to my list of books I want to read, if/when I learn French that is!
A story that is a favourite with le Carré, and now myself goes as follows:
“Yvette has become the subject of many wild tales, some apocryphal but many, despite their improbability, true. My favourite, which I heard from her own mouth – not always a guarantee of veracity – tells how Phnom Penh’s final days she marched a troop of orphaned Khmer children into the French Consulate and demanded passports, one for each child.
‘But whose children are they?’ the besieged consular official protested.
‘They are mine. I am their mother.’
‘But they’re all the same age!’
‘And I had many quadruplets, you idiot!’
Defeated, perhaps complicit, the Consul demanded to know their names. Yvette reeled them off: ‘Lundi, Mardi, Mercredi, Jeudi, Vendredi…'”
The Pigeon Tunnel is a book that I won’t forget easily. Le Carré gifts us a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than half a century, and his quest to find the human spark that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters. Le Carré writes from the heart in his first memoir that covers a myriad of events, including the Cold War, war-torn Palestine-Israel, Russia before and after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and post-genocide Rwanda to name but a few. He also has had the opportunity to converse with such people like; a German woman terrorist in her desert prison, Nobel Prize-winning physicist, KGB Chairmen and legendary filmmakers. And with every place and person that makes an appearance in his life, le Carré endows each with evocative descriptions, humour, and inviting us readers to think anew about events and people we believed we understood.
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