Book Review: The Pigeon Tunnel - Is It Le Carré or Cornwell?

No question, John Le Carré is an engaging storyteller of the spy-thriller genre. But, in a larger context, he is a master craftsman of literary fiction. He is a thoughtful commentator on geopolitics – and particularly on the power structure President Eisenhower named the “military-industrial complex.” And he is angry, in the tradition of British postwar novelists John Osborne and Kingsley Amis, who saw the political order and its elitist society as fundamentally corrupt.

First memoir by the author (Viking, Jacket design based on a series design by Buckley and Kulick / Jacket illustration by Matthew Taylor)

Le Carré makes his subtle arguments in his fiction. You won’t find any political rants in this collection of autobiographical essays. His worldview is optimistic cynicism. Love, he says (in his novels, not explicitly here), is any close relationship you have not yet betrayed. Emphasis on yet. His optimism creeps in when he encounters rare acts of exceptional kindness. He includes many of those delightful surprises in these essays, including some for which he modestly takes personal responsibility.

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life is billed by its publicists as John Le Carré’s first memoir. However, it would be more accurate to say that these are the journal entries of a different person – David Cornwell. Le Carré is Cornwell’s pen name and invented persona. This book is mostly about real-world episodes and people in Cornwell’s life who correspond closely to the stories and characters that the other person – the novelist – ripped off and exploited.

Contremporary photo of the close observer, who says he can't or won't type and writes with a pen (© Stephen Cornwell)

Cornwell’s version of events is understandably somewhat duller, more of a documentary presentation, albeit about colorful, powerful, and notorious people. The author admits, as Julian Barnes elaborates in The Sense of an Ending, that his memories have colored with age. We are all the heroes of our own life stories, and Cornwell alternately fears he is judging himself either too well or too harshly.

What’s remarkable is the apparent ease with which he has gained access to and moved among aristos, politicians, celebrities, journalists, gangsters, and warlords. It’s obvious that he listens more than he talks. His occasional questions of his acquaintances and interview subjects are penetrating and often brash.

He tells us that Oxford don Vivian Green became the model for George Smiley, Yvette Pierpaoli for Tessa Quayle, and Cornwell’s own father, Ronnie, for Rick Pym. And he confesses to borrowing the legends of several others. The real-world Ronnie was not only an outrageous, unprincipled con-man and war profiteer, but also an unapologetic rake. As well, he was a single-parent father who was sometimes doting, always demanding. But if you’ve read A Perfect Spy or seen the BBC-TV version, you know all about Rick Pym already – and at a depth you won’t get from this reportorial version of events. Still, it’s remarkable how little Le Carré had to invent, including embarrassing and humiliating incidents that the astute fiction fan will recognize.

If you've read A Perfect Spy, you already know a lot about Cornwell's father Ronnie (Knopf)

A key strategy in Ronnie’s plan for parenting was to send David away to exclusive boarding schools, despite a habitual lack of funds for tuition. One character Cornwell does not own to specifically is timid schoolboy Bill Roach of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Bullied by his peers and cowed by his mentors, “the unpaid Bill” learns he has talents as a “close observer.” And this is Le Carré’s central metaphor. What is a spy but a close observer? George Smiley can recite from memory the license-plate numbers of every car at the curb on the way to his house.

And what is the reader but a close observer? Thank you, Mr. Le Carré, for training me and your fans not only to read closely, but also to pay attention to seemingly mundane details, inflections of voice, nuanced sins of omission, and – most of all – the white space between the lines.

For all its revelations, The Pigeon Tunnel has a notable information gap. As I turned its pages, I was eager to get the scoop on the topic that has inspired the author’s most recent fury. Back in the Cold-War era, he was focused on the power plays between the intelligence agencies of the East and West, along with the hypocrisies of their governments and the incompetence of their bureaucrats. But a new generation of readers regards all that as old news.

What’s new is the globalized shadow government that seems to be taking over. Conspiracy theory? Hardly. Here’s what President Obama had to say about it in his last address to the General Assembly of the United Nations:

Global capital is too often unaccountable — nearly $8 trillion stashed away in tax havens, a shadow banking system that grows beyond the reach of effective oversight.

When you consider that the total world economy is estimated to be something like $80 trillion annually, you begin to see the size of the monster – and it’s growing.

The Night Manager exposes today's triangle trade, the root of all evil (AMC / BBC)

Le Carré’s new obsession is the latter-day triangle trade. A century and more ago, the term was coined to describe the exchange of slaves for molasses for rum between the Caribbean and West Africa. Today the traffic is narcotics for arms for cash – in every country, rich and poor. And none other than our President has just made us aware of the size of that hoard.

In no other source I’ve read – whether fiction or nonfiction – is there a more meticulous, chilling, and (I suspect) accurate description of today’s triangle trade than in Le Carré’s The Night Manager. Le Carré implies that politicians may set policy, but bureaucrats run the world. We can pass reams of legislation to regulate Wall Street, but it will only affect the transactions in the daylight. Elected officials and their policies will come and go, but, in the ultimate accounting, they are outsiders and rank amateurs.

In this book, you will search in vain for the real-world model for Dickie Roper, the mega-rich arms dealer and “the worst man in the world.” Cornwell drops a hint when he admits that the U. S. Drug Enforcement Agency told him he could find arms traffickers and money launderers in Panama. But the fictional payoff, he says here, was The Tailor of Panama, which in some ways is a much tamer story.

And if you think any politician – whether crooked or straight or bent, in any country – will ever lift a finger to prosecute big-boy money launderers, well, as one of Le Carré’s hapless espiocrats sighs, “You don’t understand anything bad.”

As I say, cynicism is at the root. Read the book to learn the origins of the pigeon tunnel in the title. But if you studied the myth of Sisyphus in school, you already know what it means.

Gerald Everett Jones is the author of the recent historical novel Bonfire of the Vanderbilts and host of GetPublished! Radio.

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