John le Carré has something of a reputation for not liking to give interviews, so these “Stories from My Life” go some way to redressing the balance, providing an insight into both his life and his writing.
This is an excellent book on lots of levels. It is very well written, with both compassion and humour, and without fail every story it tells is fascinating. I was sorry to reach the end and wanted a hundred more stories and anecdotes.
I have 20 novels by le Carré on my bookshelves and at least three DVDs of films made from his books. So what has The Pigeon Tunnel taught me about the author? I already knew that le Carré had worked for MI5, the UK spy agency, but I had never appreciated that he was fluent in German and had taught French at Eton, one of Britain’s most exclusive private schools. I had certainly never heard tales about his father, who might best be described as a lovable rogue. The father spent time in prisons around the world, tricked many into liking or trusting him and left a string of broken hearts and debts wherever he went. His father had a wild gift for telling stories, or at least getting people to believe him. Times would come when the family discovered the milkman or the local garage had not been paid for over a year. You wonder if there has been some sort of “story telling gene” that has been passed from father to son, albeit used for different purposes. Le Carré is very candid about his father, and grateful in some ways for his insistence on a good education even if school fees were paid in unorthodox ways such a via a black market case of gin. As one of the men that had worked for his father, and been conned by him, put it at the funeral, “We was all bent son. But your dad was very, very bent indeed.”
I had not appreciated before the huge amount of research that le Carré puts into his books. Research that has taken him to war-torn African states, Panama, Russia and the Middle East. Always gathering information and personalities that could be used for his characters. Sometimes, as one chapter revealed, the fictional character he created can sometimes materialize before him. Jerry Westerby, a character from his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, turned up in real life in the Raffles Hotel in Singapore, though with a different name. He was ardently British but had spent almost his whole life in Asia. Le Carré rattles off a summary of his life, first as a spy, then working for Time Magazine, then for the Sultan of Oman, and later the Hong Kong Police, as well as marriage to a princess from the Shan States. All of it reads like a novel never written. When the real man died, someone wrote in his obituary that he was the model for Le Carré’s character Jerry Westerby. The reality was that le Carré had created Westerby years before he met the real man.
The novel A Most Wanted Man, which was made into a film with Philip Seymour Hoffman, drew on a real-life character to create the troubled young man at the centre of the action. It is fascinating to read about the sources for his inspiration. At other points he interviews Russian Mafia leaders, Yassar Arafat, and even heads of the KGB. There are plenty of celebrities in his repertoire too, having has so many books made into films. Richard Burton and Alec Guinness both have little cameos to play in le Carré’s own life.
Not only was I left wanting more of this book, but also, armed with new knowledge, wanting to go back and read some of his novels again. Our Kind of Traitor needs reading before I see the recent movie version.