Our Kind Of Traitor by John Le Carre / The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carre

img_2588It was a passage from The Constant Gardener which made me realise just how skilled a writer John Le Carré is: a few lovely, witty, economical, wry paragraphs of free indirect speech in which the frailties, backstories and motivations of characters were revealed. I’ve looked now for the relevant page but can’t find it – it doesn’t matter. Wherever they are, they created the belated realisation that this was a proper author who just happens to produce multi-million-selling genre books. This shouldn’t have been a surprise, of course: is any revelation in literature, for instance, more devastating, more cynical, more unexpected than the one which crowns The Spy Who Came In From The Cold? Anyway, to these two books: Our Kind Of Traitor is about the most Le Carré-ish title you can think of. It’s perfect. I’m not convinced the beginning quite works: a British couple, an academic and a lawyer, are on holiday in Antigua when they meet a rich, brash Russian who demands a tennis match and gets what he wants. Dima is not just any rich Russian, he is a mobster and money launderer who wants to leave his current profession and is willing to blab everything to the British security services in return for his and his family’s safe passage to a new life. When Le Carré stops fussing about with the unlikely set-up and starts to talk about, you know, actual spies, things really start to motor. The mechanics of Perry and Gail being debriefed by intelligence agents and then embroiled in the plot to extract Dima from his bind are fascinating. By the by, it’s rare for Roger Federer to make an appearance in these things. I mean, there was Vijay Amritraj in the movie Octopussy, but that’s more or less it for real-life tennis players as spies. But Roger turns up at Roland-Garros (not a speaking part). Moving on: the ending is a wrench, and appropriately bathetic. Such is the dirty business they are all in. Reading The Pigeon Tunnel soon afterwards is instructive. In these revealing, belated autobiographical musings, the eighty-something Le Carré talks about the people he dealt with in his time as a (fairly low-rung) spy with MI5 and MI6 and those he’s come across since – spooks, Alec Guinness, warlords, Yasser Arafat, Stanley Kubrick, it’s quite a mixed bag. He is candid about how these experiences have informed his fiction: time with the PLO bled into The Little Drummer Girl, an Ingush parliamentarian became the model for the lead in A Most Wanted Man, and so on. He meets a Dima in real life, a poisonous, impassively cynical Russian gangster who proves to be, in some ways at least, the model for the (slightly gentler, slightly better) Dima in Our Kind Of Traitor. What’s much more interesting is the connection that Le Carré doesn’t make explicit. In spiriting Dima and his children away via safe houses, there are descriptions of Perry and Gail acting as playmates, bringing presents to the kids, looking after them, keeping them happy. These did not ring true for me while reading Our Kind Of Traitor. But then, an epiphany: tucked away in The Pigeon Tunnel is the frankly amazing story of Le Carré’s early life. Abandoned by his mother and tolerated by his criminal father, Ronnie (who was in and out of jail), home was built around an unstable charmer: ‘Ronnie was a five-star conman with the unfortunate gift of awakening love in men and women equally.’ Ronnie’s business was murky but he made a lot of money at times and was surrounded by hangers-on who included, at times, proper criminals and minor celebrities. ‘With the Court in attendance we had wintered in splendour at the Kulm Hotel in St Moritz.’ At home in London, bedroom cupboards ‘were stuffed with new toys on an Arab scale’ (whatever an ‘Arab scale’ is). Le Carré, as a boy, was in much the same emotional boat as the fictional Dima’s children: often living the high life, looking over his shoulder, craving security, receiving the kindness of glamorous strangers. It’s extraordinary. Okay, so Dima’s Russian ex-special forces bodyguards were missing, but apart from that there is nothing fabricated about it: Le Carré was writing about Dima’s court from first-hand experience. No wonder MI5 identified the teenage dropout as someone who would probably suit a life of duplicity. What a life.




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