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‘Pigeon Tunnel’ asks who is the real John le Carré?

Dan Webster

Above: Author John le Carré is the focus of the Errol Morris documentary "The Pigeon Tunnel." (Photo/Apple)

Movie review: "The Pigeon Tunnel," directed by Errol Morris, featuring John le Carré. Playing at the Magic Lantern Theatre, streaming on Apple TV+.

One of the things that irritates many artists is the insistence that they explain the meaning of their work. British writer David Lister addressed this issue in a 2009 column for the UK newspaper The Independent.

Recalling a heated exchange between the filmmaker Steve McQueen and journalists who questioned why he had included two dogs in a short film he had directed, Lister said he was glad that McQueen had refused to address the issue. Why? Because, Lister insisted, when artists define their work, it limits everyone else’s ability to figure out what they might think the work means.

“It's a great boon for several centuries of literary criticism that Shakespeare never gave a press conference,” Lister wrote. Imagine, he added, if The Bard had faced a similar situation as McQueen. He might have been confronted with a query such as, “I'm asking you a simple question, Mr. Shakespeare. Why did Hamlet hesitate? Surely that's not a lot to ask."

You could certainly not blame Shakespeare for answering, “Yes it is. And don’t call me Shirley.”

All jokes aside, beginning with the success of his best-selling third novel, 1963’s “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” the writer John le Carré managed to avoid such confrontations by skillfully dodging the spotlight.

He gave few interviews and so readers were left with few facts about the author himself, other than he had once worked for British intelligence, first for MI5 (the British security service) and then MI6 (the British foreign intelligence service) – positions that gave him both an insider’s view of the world of espionage and the credibility to convincingly portray it in fiction.

Then in 2016, le Carré wrote a memoir titled “The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories From My Life.” And both it, and the Errol Morris documentary feature of the same title – the first three words at least – reveal the real man, David Cornwell, behind the two-dozen-plus novels that rank among the most popular literary accomplishments of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

But if they do reveal something, just exactly what and how much? Morris gets le Carré to talk about his father, the conman Ronnie Cornwell, whose adult life was spent working one scam after the next and who once served a prison term for insurance fraud. It was the elder Cornwell’s schemes that kept the family continually in debt, a target of creditors, and that caused le Carré’s mother to quit the marriage when Le Carré was just 5 years old.

He talks about his mother as well, a woman le Carré never met up with until years later and never completely connected with – other than wondering whether, on the night she left, she took the trouble to pause at the door to her son’s bedroom, taking one last look at the boy she was abandoning.

Throughout Morris’ film, le Carré does a lot of talking. And much of it, delivered during re-created scenes with actors, sounds credible. Or at least thoughtful. But even he can’t be sure of how much of what he remembers is actual truth. Certainly in this regard, le Carré comes across as honest. As he wrote in his memoir, “Even when we convince ourselves that we are being dispassionate, sticking to the bald facts with no self-serving decorations or omissions, pure memory remains as elusive as a bar of wet soap.”

Morris doesn’t help matters much by declining to push into more personal territory, not that le Carré would have agreed to go there. There’s not a word, for example, about the 11 sexual dalliances that le Carré supposedly enjoyed during his second marriage as reported in Adam Sisman’s 2023 biography “The Secret Life of John le Carré.”

If nothing else, “The Pigeon Tunnel” does make a case that le Carré’s painful childhood set him up perfectly for a life defined by duplicity. It prepared him both for his espionage career and then as someone adept at documenting, in his own imaginative way, the seamier side ofthat career in literature.

By the way, Hamlet – like le Carré – had a problematic father, too – though I doubt any journalist ever had the temerity to ask Shakespeare what that relationship was supposed to signify.