The Pigeon Tunnel, by John le Carré

ISBN: 0241976898, Penguin

In this Shelf Indulgence review I take a look at John le Carré’s memoir, The Pigeon Tunnel. Described simply by le Carré as ‘true stories told from memory’, and by his publisher as ‘a glimpse of a writer’s journey over more than six decades, and his own hunt for the human spark that has given so much life and heart to his fictional characters.’ Well, there is life and heart as well as humour and thrills in this collection of stories from a long and very full life.

The master of the spy thriller pulls no punches over the dubious goings-on post-WW2 between the British, US and German governments. And he went to astonishing lengths to gain authentic background to his stories. He describes his conversations with a Russian political prisoner under the eyes of the KGB, forays into Beirut, his dances with Arafat, his visits to Phnom Penh at the brink of its fall – escapades as thrilling as his fiction. This assiduousness, he says, was prompted by an embarrassing gaff in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which led to a frantic scramble to stop the book’s printing until he corrected the error. He swore then that he would never again set a scene in a place he hadn’t visited. He writes, ‘[I]n midlife I was getting fat and lazy and living off a fund of past experience that was running out.’ But to go into a war zone unarmed with no protection other than a British passport takes rare courage, and this – together with his sharp appreciation of the absurd – shines through on each page. Nor does he go easy on himself in any of his encounters, reporting them with brutal honesty to brilliant comic effect.

His anecdotes are apposite, amusing, illuminating, and concise – like listening to a brilliant dinner guest telling indiscreet and rather scandalous tales.

The Pigeon Tunnel is available on Amazon

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