Going out into the field - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)

Chapter 10. Going out into the field

My writing desk in Cornwall is built into the attic of a granite barn built on a cliff edge. Looking ahead of me on a sunny July morning, I see only the Atlantic painted a ridiculously perfect Mediterranean blue. A regatta of spindly sailing boats leans against a leisurely eastern breeze. Friends who come to visit us think we are either mad or blessed depending on the weather, and today we are blessed. On this end-point of land, it can round on you any time it feels the urge. Days and nights of storm-force wind, then truce and sudden silence. Any time of year, a fat cloud of fog can park itself on our headland, and no amount of rain can persuade it to remove itself.

A couple of hundred yards inland, in a tumbledown cottage attached to an old farmstead with the beautiful name of Boscawen Rose, lives a family of barn owls. I have seen them together only once: two adults and a row of four chicks lined up on a broken windowsill for the family photograph I had no time to take. Since then I have maintained a relationship with one adult only - or so I have arbitrarily decided, though for all I know it could be any one of the extended family, because the chicks are long ago full-grown. This father owl, as I am determined to imagine him, is my secret sharer who, long before he skims past my west window, transmits by means unknown to me an early warning of his arrival. I am scribbling away, head down and lost, as I hope, to the real world; but I am never too late to spot his golden-white shadow skimming low over the ground beneath my window. He has no predators I know of. Neither the cliff ravens nor the peregrine falcons are inclined to tangle with him.

This barn owl is also surveillance-conscious to a degree that we human spies would consider psychic. Steep grazing land tips down to the sea. He can be hovering over it, eighteen inches above the long grass as he shapes to swoop on an unsuspecting vole. But if I so much as think of raising my head, he aborts the operation and ducks over the cliff. Come evening if I am lucky he will have forgotten me, and there he is again, with only the tips of his milk-and-honey wings trembling. And this time I have promised myself not to lift my head.

On a sunny spring day in 1974, I arrived in Hong Kong to discover that somebody had built a tunnel under the sea between the island of Hong Kong and mainland Kowloon without my knowledge. I had just turned in the corrected proofs of my novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Any moment, finished copies would be rolling off the presses. Among the book’s supposed pleasures was a pursuit by Star Ferry across the straits between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. To my everlasting shame I had dared to write the passage here in Cornwall with the help of an outdated guidebook. Now I was paying the price.

The hotel possessed a fax machine. I had a bound proof copy of my novel in my luggage. I dug it out. I telephoned my agent in the middle of his night and implored him to persuade the publishers to hold the presses. Was it too late for America? He would find out, but feared it was. After a couple more drives through the tunnel with a notepad on my knee, I faxed a revised text to London and swore I would never again set a scene in a place I hadn’t visited. And my agent was right: it was too late for the American first edition.

But the lesson I had learned wasn’t just about research. It told me that in midlife I was getting fat and lazy and living off a fund of past experience that was running out. It was time to take on unfamiliar worlds. A dictum of Graham Greene’s was ringing somewhere in my ear: something to the effect that if you were reporting on human pain, you had a duty to share it.

Whether the tunnel was really to blame, or whether I made the perception later is immaterial. What I know for sure is, from the tunnel onwards, I hoisted my backpack and, fancying myself some sort of wanderer in the German Romantic tradition, set out in search of experience: first to Cambodia and Vietnam, afterwards to Israel and the Palestinians, then to Russia, Central America, Kenya and the Eastern Congo. It’s a journey that has continued one way or another for the last forty-odd years, and I shall always think of Hong Kong as its starting point.

Within days I had the good luck to strike up an acquaintance with the same David (H. D. S.) Greenway who later pelted down the icy footpath from my chalet without his passport to become one of the last Americans to leave Phnom Penh. He was thinking about taking a swing through the war zones for the Washington Post. Would I care to tag along? Forty-eight hours later I was lying scared stiff beside him in a shallow foxhole, peering at Khmer Rouge sharpshooters embedded on the opposite bank of the Mekong River.

Nobody had ever shot at me before. I had entered a world where everyone seemed to have more courage than I had, whether they were war correspondents or ordinary people going about their daily business in the knowledge that their city was entirely surrounded by Khmer Rouge fighters at a few miles distance, that they were liable to be bombarded at any time of day or night, and that the American-backed forces under Lon Nol were ineffective. True, I was new to it all, and they were old hands. And maybe if you live with danger long enough, you do indeed get used to it - even, Heaven help us, dependent on it. Later, in Beirut, I almost came to believe that. Or maybe I am just one of those people who are unable to accept the inevitability of human conflict.

Everyone has their own take on human courage and it’s always subjective. Everyone wonders what their own breaking point will be, when and how it will come, and how their performance will compare with other people’s. Of myself, I know only that the nearest I came to showing courage was when I was suppressing its opposite, which may be the definition of a natural-born coward. And mostly such moments came when those around me were showing greater courage than came naturally to me; and, by their example, lent me theirs. And of all of those people, the bravest I met on my travels - some would say the craziest, although I would not be among them - was a diminutive French provincial businesswoman from Metz named Yvette Pierpaoli who, with her partner Kurt, a former Swiss sea captain, ran a ramshackle import business out of Phnom Penh for which they maintained a stable of elderly single-engined aircraft and a colourful team of pilots to hop from town to town over hostile jungle held by Pol Pot, delivering food and medical supplies and airlifting sick children to what was still the relative safety of Phnom Penh.

With the Khmer Rouge drawing the knot ever tighter round Phnom Penh and refugee families pouring into it from every side, and random shellings and car-bombings spreading havoc, Yvette Pierpaoli had discovered her true mission: saving children in peril. Her motley collection of Asian and Chinese pilots, more used to ferrying typewriters and fax machines for her trading company, now turned their hands to salvaging children and their mothers from outlying towns about to fall to Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge.

Unsurprisingly, the pilots were only part-time saints. Some had flown for Air America, the CIA’s airline. Some had flown opium. Most had done both. Ailing children might find themselves cushioned by bags of opium base or semi-precious gems, bought for hard dollars in Pailin. One pilot I flew with entertained himself by instructing me how to land the plane if he was too high on morphine to do it for himself. In the novel I was researching, later titled The Honourable Schoolboy, I called him Charlie Marshall.

Back in Phnom Penh, Yvette was fearless in her efforts to provide shelter and hope to children who had neither. It was with Yvette that I saw my first casualties of war: dead and bloodied Cambodian soldiers, stacked head to head in an open lorry with their feet bare. Somebody had stolen their boots, along no doubt with their pay-books, wristwatches and any spare money they had taken into battle with them. The lorry was parked beside an artillery battery that was firing with seeming aimlessness into the jungle. Around the guns, small children, deaf from the blasts, drifted in bewilderment. Around the children sat young mothers whose men were fighting in the jungle. They were waiting for them to come back in the knowledge that if they didn’t their commanders would not report them missing but go on collecting their pay.

Bowing, smiling, making her wais, Yvette sat among the women and gathered the children to herself. What she could possibly have said to them over the thunder of the guns I’ll never know, but the next minute they were laughing, mothers and children both. Even the men at the guns were sharing the joke. Back in the city, small boys and girls sat cross-legged in the dust of the pavement beside litre bottles filled with the petrol they had filched from the fuel tanks of wrecked cars. If a bomb went off, the petrol ignited and the children got burned. And Yvette, hearing the explosion from the balcony of her house, would leap into the dreadful little car that she drove like a tank, and comb the streets in search of survivors.

I made a couple more journeys to Phnom Penh before the city finally fell. By the time I left for the last time, the Indian shopkeepers and the girls in their rickshaws were shaping to be the last to get out: the traders because the greater the shortages, the higher the prices; the girls because in their innocence they believed their services would be in demand whoever won. In the event, they were recruited to the Khmer Rouge, or died of deprivation in the killing fields. From Saigon, as it still was, I had written to Graham Greene to tell him that I had reread The Quiet American, and that it stood up wonderfully. Improbably the letter reached him, and he wrote back urging me to visit the museum in Phnom Penh and admire the bowler hat with ostrich feathers with which Khmer kings had been crowned. I had to tell him that not only was there no bowler hat; there was no museum any more.

Yvette has become the subject of many wild tales, some apocryphal but many, despite their improbability, true. My favourite, which I heard from her own mouth - not always a guarantee of veracity - tells how in Phnom Penh’s final days she marched a troop of orphaned Khmer children into the French Consulate and demanded passports, one for each child.

‘But whose children are they?’ the besieged consular official protested.

‘They are mine. I am their mother.’

‘But they’re all the same age!’

‘And I had many quadruplets, you idiot!’

Defeated, perhaps complicit, the Consul demanded to know their names. Yvette reeled them off: ‘Lundi, Mardi, Mercredi, Jeudi, Vendredi …’

In April 1999, while on a mission to the refugees of Kosovo, Yvette Pierpaoli was killed, along with David and Penny McCall of Refugees International, when their Albanian driver skidded off a mountain road and their car crashed hundreds of feet into a ravine. By then, with much help from my wife, she had written her own book,* which was translated into several languages. The title in English was Woman of a Thousand Children. She was sixty-one. I was in Nairobi at the time, researching my novel The Constant Gardener, which had as its central character a woman who was prepared to go to any lengths to help people unable to help themselves: in this case, African tribal women who were being used as human guinea pigs in clinical trials. Yvette had by then worked extensively in Africa, as well as in Guatemala and - her nemesis - Kosovo. In my novel, the female character, whose name is Tessa, dies. I had always intended her to die, and I suppose that, after my travels with Yvette, I had known that her luck too couldn’t last. As a child Yvette had been raped, abused and discarded. As a young woman she had taken refuge in Paris, and in penury resorted to prostitution. When she discovered she was pregnant by a Cambodian man, she went to Phnom Penh to find him, only to discover he had another life. In a bar she met Kurt and they became partners in business as in life.

I met her for the first time in the house of a German diplomat in the besieged city of Phnom Penh, over a dinner served to the clatter of outgoing gunfire from Lon Nol’s palace a hundred yards down the road. She was accompanied by Kurt. Their trading company was called Suisindo, and operated from an old wooden house in the centre of town. She was sparky, tough, brown-eyed and in her late thirties, by turns vulnerable and raucous, never the one thing for long. She could spread her elbows and upbraid you like a bargee. She could tip you a smile to melt your heart. She could cajole, flatter and win you in any way you needed to be won. But it was all for a cause.

And the cause, you quickly learned, was to get food and money to the starving by any method and at any price: medicines to the sick, shelter for the homeless, papers for the stateless and, in the most secular, businesslike, down-to-earth way, perform miracles. This did not in the least prevent her from being a resourceful and frequently shameless businesswoman, particularly when she was pitched against people whose cash, in her unshakeable opinion, would be better in the pockets of the needy. Suisindo made good profits, as it had to, since much of the money that came through the front door flowed straight out of the back, earmarked for whatever good purpose Yvette had set her heart on. And Kurt, the wisest and most long-suffering of men, smiled and nodded it on its way.

A Swedish aid official, enamoured of her, invited Yvette to his private island off the coast of Sweden. Phnom Penh had fallen. Kurt and Yvette, having relocated to Bangkok, were on their financial uppers. A contract was at stake: would they or would they not win the Swedish aid agency’s commission to buy and deliver several million dollars’ worth of rice to starving Cambodian refugees on the Thai border? Their nearest competitor was a ruthless Chinese merchant who Yvette was convinced, probably on no greater evidence than her intuition, was plotting to short-change both the aid agency and the refugees.

Under Kurt’s urging, she set off for the Swedish island. The beach house was a love-nest prepared for her arrival. Scented candles, she swore, were burning in the bedroom. Her lover-to-be was ardent, but she entreated patience. Might they not first take a romantic walk on the beach? Of course! For you, anything! It’s freezing cold, so they must wrap up warm. As they stumble over the sand dunes in the darkness, Yvette proposes a childhood game:

‘Stand still. So. Now you place yourself close behind me. Closer. So. That is very nice. Now I close my eyes and you put your hands over them. You are comfortable? I too. Now you may ask me one question, any question in the world, one only, and I must answer the absolute truth. If I do not, I am not worthy of you. You will play this game? Good. I too. So what is your question?’

His question, predictably, concerns her most intimate desires. She describes them, I am sure with brazen falsehood: she dreams, she says, of a certain handsome, virile Swede making love to her in a perfumed bedroom on a lonely island in the midst of a turbulent sea. Then it’s her turn. She spins him round, and perhaps with less tenderness than the poor fellow might have expected, claps her hands over his eyes and yells in his ear:

‘What is the nearest competitive tender to Suisindo’s for the delivery of one thousand tons of rice to the refugees on the Thai-Cambodian border?’

It was Yvette’s work, I now realize, that I wished to celebrate when I embarked on The Constant Gardener. Probably I realized it from the start, whenever the start was. Probably she did. And it was Yvette’s presence that, before and after the moment of her death, steered me through the book. To all of which, she would say: of course.