THE PIGEON TUNNEL
By John le Carre
Viking, $28, 320 pages
John le Carre has led an enviable life roaming the secret world of spies and becoming famous by writing about it all.
In this delightful potpourri of a biography he has injected the large and small secrets discreetly left out in his classic espionage work. His global wanderings for British intelligence put him in contact not only with the Russian KGB and British prime ministers but theatrical luminaries such as the great Alec Guinness and Richard Burton. Among the most fascinating and chilling vignettes in the book is Mr. le Carre’s account of being a confidante of Nicholas Elliott, s British veteran agent who was one of the few who knew what can only be termed the terrible truth about Kim Philby — the most contemptible of English traitors who sent many to their deaths for the Russians and escaped unscathed for the incredible reason that he fit so well into the British class system he was considered “one of us.”
Mr. le Carre gives generous credit to another author, Ben MacIntyre of the Times of London, noting that his recent book “A Spy Among Friends” should be acclaimed for its brutal candor not only about Philby but about Elliott, who was one of the unashamed British cadre who allowed a traitor to escape to a dull but safe life in Moscow. These silken smooth memoirs are the backdrop for what the author does not include in his best-read books, and it is a glimpse into a world that combined both privilege and irony. There is an enchanting glimpse of the humor of Alec Guinness at a sophisticated lunch party where one of the guests is dressed gaudily in orange and green. Guinness reacts by chuckling, “Oh, you came as a frog!”
Mr. le Carre excels as an observer of the world around him and the darkness it conceals. He paints a gothic picture of his father, describing himself as “the son of a con man” and describing without hesitation and surprisingly little malice his childhood problems and his lifelong struggle to cope with a ruthless parent. There is bitterness in his account of his father and the pigeon legend. This is the story of the fate of birds trapped in miniature tunnels on a Monte Carlo roof for the sporting delight of lunching gentlemen, such as Mr. le Carre’s father. They are simply targets and some are killed, others wounded. Those injured automatically return to their tunnels to await the same fate. It is, observes the author, “what pigeons do.” And he seems to draw a parallel between his psychology and that of the pigeons.
Mr. le Carre admits he doesn’t like reading about himself, whether it is good or bad, yet he is capable of calling on powerful friends and acquaintances when he needs to. Like Rupert Murdoch. His account of his 25-minute lunch with Mr. Murdoch at the Savoy Grill is Mr. le Carre at his cynical best and he even manages to bring in Robert Maxwell, another press baron. There tends to be a flavoring of gossip in Mr. le Carre’s anecdotes that he seems to relish telling and he is clearly a man who likes to dish. He seems to especially relish describing how he turned down an offer from Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to be on the honors list on the grounds that he didn’t really approve of the system.
He leaves the impression that he has thoroughly enjoyed being a spy and for all his readers know, he still is. He admits with what sounds like a wicked chuckle, that people kept asking his advice on how to become a spy and, of course, he can’t tell them. Perhaps all he can do is tell them to read his books.
• Muriel Dobbin is a former White House and national political reporter for McClatchy newspapers and the Baltimore Sun.