Dancing with Yasser Arafat and other escapades of a writer (Book Review)
Title: The Pigeon Tunnel – Stories from My Life; Author: John Le Carre; Publisher: Penguin Random House; Pages: 320; Price: Rs 599
There are few authors of fiction who can claim a life as exciting, let alone more, than what they portray in their works. John Le Carre, who can be credited with reinventing the espionage genre, inverts the argument with his own example — more colourful than what can be found in his novels, which focus on moral ambiguity and psychological conflicts rather than high action and technological gizmos.
These included, but were not limited to, dancing with Yasser Arafat at a New Year’s Eve party in Lebanon, sampling the wares at an opium den in Laos, arranging female company for German politicians he was shepherding in London, meeting extremists spanning from the Baader-Meinhof Group of the 1970s to Islamist radicals of the early 21st century, questioning a Russian “big bucks” on his legacy (and receiving a voluminous reply which on translation turned out to be a rude request, made politely), being summoned post-haste to provide company for Richard Burton during the filming of his first successful book and presenting one of his works to a distracted Italian President.
And here, Le Carre tells us some vignettes of his extraordinary life, including about his short and uneventful espionage career which was aborted due to a high-profile defection — but only to the extent the secrecy laws and his own conscience permit.
Through the chequered life of David John Moore Cornwell (Le Carre was a pseudonym as he was still in the security services when he began writing), is known due to a recent and most comprehensive biography by Adam Sisman, who had extensive access to him, and his family, he supplements some of the stories mentioned there in his consummately polished (due to an unexpected, exacting teacher) and constantly self-deprecating style.
Alongside, he provided many snippets of information — possibly revealed here first — about major events and people in the later half of the 20th century, especially the experience of a Soviet spy-turned-senior Russian diplomat who tried to avert both the Iraq wars. Not to be ignored are the tantalising backgrounds to some of his classic novels and their characters — and how some surprising people related to them.
And in the end there is a longish account of his strange relationship with his father — a charming, enthusiastic but not very successful con artist, and which Le Carre had already made the backdrop of his novel “The Perfect Spy” (1986).
About his first attempt at an autobiography, Le Carre says: “Out of the secret world I once knew, I have tried to make a theatre for the larger worlds we inhabit. First comes the imagining, then the search for reality. Then back to the imagining, and to the desk where I’m sitting now.”
Terming all these three dozen-odd reminiscences “true stories told from memory”, he also deals with the possible question of what is truth and memory “to a creative writer in what we may delicately call the evening of his life”, and deems facts for a writer as being the “raw material, not his taskmaster but his instrument, and his job is to make it sing”.
Admitting to have sporadically “lifted bits of conversation or description from newspaper articles I wrote at the time because their freshness appealed to me, and because later memory didn’t deliver the same sharpness”, he, however, stresses that “nowhere have I consciously falsified an event or a story”. “Disguised where necessary, yes. Falsified, emphatically not” and “wherever my memory is shaky, I have taken care to say so”, he says.
Adding to his work’s accessibility, he also admits that he does not “presume in my reader a great knowledge of my work — or, for that matter, any knowledge of it at all, hence the odd explanatory passage along the way”.
Thus this is not only an accessible and lucid guide to Le Carre’s oeuvre, but also an enlightening and insightful view into the craft of espionage writing — and also the uniquely singular world which makes it a feasible and engrossing subject.
(Vikas Datta can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)