New York-Successful men are often driven by a need to come to terms with their fathers. We can see that in the openings of their memoirs. “Someone once said that every man is trying to either live up to his father’s expectations or make up for his father’s mistakes, and I suppose that may explain my particular malady as well as anything else,” Barack Obama wrote. Richard Nixon put it more succinctly: “I was born in a house my father built.”
The spy novelist John le Carré opens his charming new book, “The Pigeon Tunnel,” by recalling the time he tagged along on one of his father’s gambling sprees in Monte Carlo. Beneath the lawn of the sporting club were small tunnels from which trapped pigeons were ejected over the sea as targets for the sportsmen. The ones that survived “returned to the place of their birth on the casino roof, where the same traps awaited them,” le Carré writes. “Quite why this image has haunted me for so long is something the reader is perhaps better able to judge than I am.”
Like a wounded pigeon, le Carré proceeds to circle through his life back toward the injuries of his childhood. He saves the chapter on his father — an irredeemable grifter and con man — until near the end, leading up to it with a hodgepodge of other tales, some related and others a bit random. The result is not so much a memoir as a collection of memories, many of them containing tantalizing intimations of a powerful autobiography that still yearns to be written.
The story of le Carré’s tortured relationship with his Falstaffian father provided grist last year for Adam Sisman’s 652-page biography, “John le Carré,” which also delved into other corners of its subject’s personal life.
Le Carré fully cooperated with Sisman, but was apparently unhappy with having his life so revealed. A few days after the biography came out, le Carré announced he would write his own memoir, which may account for why parts of “The Pigeon Tunnel” seem hastily assembled. As le Carré explains in his introduction, “A recently published account of my life offers thumbnail versions of one or two of the stories, so it naturally pleases me to reclaim them as my own, tell them in my own voice and invest them as best I can with my own feelings.”
Le Carré’s childhood and dealings with his father prepared him well for joining the British intelligence services, which he did just out of college. “Evasion and deception were the necessary weapons of my childhood,” he writes in the first of his many circles back toward his youth. “When the secret world came to claim me, it felt like a coming home.”
Likewise, living with a pseudonym came naturally. His real name is David Cornwell, but while serving as a British agent in Germany, he began publishing under the name John le Carré. “Spying and novel writing are made for each other,” he notes. “Both call for a ready eye for human transgression and the many routes to betrayal.”
His success in 1963 with “The Spy Who Came In From the Cold” allowed le Carré to quit intelligence work and become the master spy novelist of our era. He assiduously reported his 23 novels on trips from Bremen to Beirut to Bangkok, learning two great lessons. The first was that moral clarity is diminished by increased understanding: “The harder you looked for absolutes, the less likely you were to find them.” The second was that intelligence agencies are a window into a society’s soul: “If you are a novelist struggling to explore a nation’s psyche, its Secret Service is not an unreasonable place to look.”
The New York Times