While David Cornwell, the man behind nom de plume John le Carré, worked for both MI5 and MI6 as a young man, he never considered himself much a spy. Appropriately, his memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life, is not a series of thrilling espionage yarns, a recounting of his time in trade, or even a cradle-to-old-age look back at all that has come before. (That work Cornwell left to Adam Sisman, who published John le Carré: The Biography, the “definitive” retelling of the author’s life, last year.) The Pigeon Tunnel, instead, is a special kind of treat for anyone who has allowed John le Carré to lead them down alleyways and into the world’s shadiest corners.
Organized as 38 mostly standalone, mostly new stories (some were previously published), The Pigeon Tunnel is a collection of moments from Cornwell’s life as a writer and, yes, occasionally as a spy, but those diplomatic assignments are far from the exploits of George Smiley. And indeed, Cornwell is quite clear in his feelings about the world’s regard for him as a spy master. In reality, he left the service in his early 30s, hoping to earn praise for his literary invention, which was then regarded by readers and critics as the tell-all experience of a well-traveled tradesman.
The truth is that Cornwell, more than anything, is a master writer and a thorough researcher, and most of the stories in The Pigeon Tunnel follow him as he travels the globe hunting for truths with which to line his fictional creations and color to shade his pages. After an embarrassing factual mistake early in his career, Cornwell promised himself never to write about a locale without visiting it to see how it’s laid out and who really holds power. The result has been novels that ring truer than life and travel stories to rival them. Some highlights include his various meetings with Yasser Arafat, his conversations with a BBC broadcaster who hints that he may have hunted a few Nazis in his day, tales about his con-artist father, and two trips to Russia in the immediately aftermath of the Soviet Union, including one evening when he sent a bottle of vodka to his two clandestine tails, who then followed the wrong man home.
As always, Cornwell writes with graceful clarity. Here he is describing Russian writers and the uncertainty of their newfound freedom in 1987: “Whatever will they write, I wondered, when they are let into the wild? Will they be the Tolstoys and Lermontovs of tomorrow? Or have they been thinking round corners for so long that they can’t write in straight lines?”
The Pigeon Tunnel< is the literary equivalent of a long night spent in the company of a grand storyteller, who has saved up a lifetime of his best tales to share with you over several rounds of fine scotch. The collection leaves the impression of a man who has gone to impossible lengths for his words, bringing the farthest reaches of the globe, some of its cruelest inhabitants, and a small handful of genuine heroes back home for all of us. The Pigeon Tunnel shows a little bit of that work, and somehow makes his 55 years in literature seem even more impressive.