Theatre of the Real: the Villa Brigitte - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 14. Theatre of the Real: the Villa Brigitte

The prison was a discreet cluster of green military huts set in a fold of the Negev desert and surrounded by barbed wire. A watchtower stood at each corner. To insiders of the Israeli intelligence community it was known as the Villa Brigitte; to the rest of the world, not at all. Brigitte, as the young English-speaking colonel of Shin Bet, Israel’s security service, explained to me as he drove our Jeep over billows of sand, was a radicalized German activist who had thrown in her lot with a group of Palestinian terrorists. Their plan was to shoot down an El Al plane as it approached Nairobi’s Kenyatta airport, to which end they had provided themselves with a rocket launcher, a rooftop on the plane’s flight path, and Brigitte.

All she had to do, with her Nordic looks and blonde hair, was stand in a phone booth inside the airport and, with a shortwave radio to one ear and a phone to the other, relay the control tower’s flight instructions to the boys on the roof. She was in the process of doing this when she was joined by a team of Israeli agents, at which point her contribution to the operation ended. The El Al plane, forewarned, had already arrived - empty save for her captors. It returned to Tel Aviv with Brigitte manacled to the floor. The fate of the boys on the roof remained vague. They had been taken care of, my Shin Bet colonel assured me, but did not specify how, and I did not feel it proper to ask. I had been given to understand I was being granted a rare privilege, thanks to the good offices of General Shlomo Gazit, until recently the head of Israeli military intelligence, and a valued acquaintance.

Brigitte was now a prisoner in Israeli hands, but the secrecy of the operation remained essential, I had been warned. The Kenyan authorities had collaborated with the Israelis but had no wish to inflame domestic Muslim feeling. The Israelis had no wish to compromise their sources or embarrass a valued ally. I was being taken to visit her on the understanding that I wouldn’t write about her until I had the Israelis’ permission. And since they told me that they had so far not admitted either to her parents or to the German government that they knew of her whereabouts, I might have to wait a while. But that didn’t trouble me too much. I was about to introduce my fictional Charlie to the kind of company she would be keeping if she succeeded in penetrating the West German-Palestinian terrorist cell that she was being groomed for. At Brigitte’s hands, if I was lucky, Charlie would be taking her first lessons in the theory and practice of terror.

‘Does Brigitte talk?’ I ask the young colonel.

‘Maybe.’

‘About her motives?’

‘Maybe.’

Better I ask her myself. Fine. I feel I can do that. I have a notion that I’m going to strike up a relationship with Brigitte, however false and fleeting. Although I left Germany six years before the flowering of Ulrike Meinhof’s Red Army Faction, I have no problem understanding its origins, or even sympathizing with some of its arguments: just not its methods. In this, and this alone, I am no different from large sections of Germany’s middle classes, who are secretly providing the Baader-Meinhof Group with money and comfort. I too am disgusted by the presence of former high-ranking Nazis in politics, the judiciary, the police, industry, banking and the Churches; by the refusal of German parents to discuss the Nazi experience with their own children; and by the West German government’s subservience to America’s Cold War policy in its ugliest manifestations. And have I not, if Brigitte requires further proof of my credentials, visited Palestinian camps and hospitals, witnessed the misery and heard the cry? Surely all of this added together will buy me some sort of ticket of entry, however short lived, to the mind of a radical German woman in her twenties?

Prisons have an unpleasant hold on me. It’s the abiding image of my incarcerated father that won’t let me go. In my imagination, I have seen him in more prisons than he ever inhabited, always the same burly, powerful, restlessly active man with his Einstein brow, prowling his cage and protesting his innocence. In an earlier life, whenever I was sent to interrogate men in prison, I had to take myself in hand for fear of earning the jeers of the inmates I had come to question when the iron door slammed behind me.

There was no courtyard to the Villa Brigitte, or none I remember. We were stopped at the gates, scrutinized and allowed to pass. The young colonel led me up an outdoor staircase and called out a greeting in Hebrew. Major Kaufmann was the prison governor. I don’t know whether she was really called Kaufmann, or whether that was the name I have since awarded her. When I was an army intelligence officer in Austria, a Sergeant Kaufmann was the keeper of Graz’s town jail, where we locked up our suspects. What is certain to me is that she wore a white name-tag above the left breast pocket of her untypically immaculate uniform, that she was an army major aged fifty or so, sturdy but not plump, with bright brown eyes and a pained but kindly smile.

And we speak English, Major Kaufmann and I. I have been speaking English with the colonel, and since I have no Hebrew it is only natural that we go on speaking English. So you’ve come to see Brigitte, she says, and I say, yes, it’s a privilege, I’m very sensible to it, very grateful, and is there anything I should be saying or not saying to her? I go on to explain what I haven’t explained to the colonel: that I’m not a journalist but a novelist, here to collect deep background, and pledged not to write or speak about today’s encounter without the consent of my hosts. To all of which she smiles politely and says, of course, and would I prefer tea or coffee, and I say coffee.

‘Brigitte has not been very easy recently,’ she warns me in the considered tone of a doctor discussing her patient’s condition. ‘When she was first here, she accepted. Now, in these last weeks, she has been’ - a little sigh - ‘notaccepting.’

Since I cannot understand how anyone accepts imprisonment, I say nothing.

‘She will talk to you, maybe she won’t talk to you. I don’t know. First she said no, now she says yes. She is not decided. Shall I send for her?’

She sends for her in Hebrew over a radio. We wait, and go on waiting. Major Kaufmann smiles at me, so I smile back at her. I’m beginning to wonder whether Brigitte has changed her mind again when I hear multiple footsteps approach an interior door, and have a momentary sickening expectation of a young demented woman in handcuffs with her hair torn, being delivered to me against her will. The door is unlocked from the other side, and a tall, beautiful woman in a prison tunic, enhanced by a tightly drawn belt, strides in with a diminutive wardress either side of her, each lightly holding an arm. Her long blonde hair is combed freely down her back. Even her prison tunic becomes her. As her wardresses withdraw, she steps forward, drops an ironic bob and, like a well-brought-up daughter of the house, extends her hand to me.

‘With whom do I have the honour?’ she enquires in courtly German, to which I hear myself repeating in German what I have already told Major Kaufmann in English: that I am this novelist, here to inform myself. To which she says nothing at all, but looks at me, until Major Kaufmann, from her chair in the corner of the room, says helpfully in her excellent English:

‘You may sit down now, Brigitte.’

So Brigitte sits, prim and upright like the good German schoolgirl she has evidently decided to be. I have planned to exchange a few opening banalities with her, but discover I have none to hand. So I go straight to the point with a couple of cumbersome questions such as: ‘Do you in retrospect regret your actions, Brigitte?’ And: ‘What actually set you on the path to radicalism?’ To neither of which she has anything to say, preferring instead to sit stock still with her hands flat on the table and stare at me in a mixture of puzzlement and contempt.

Major Kaufmann comes to my rescue:

‘Maybe you like to tell him how you joined the group, Brigitte,’ she suggests, speaking like an English schoolmistress with a foreign accent.

Brigitte seems not to hear this. She is looking me up and down, methodically, if not insolently. When she has completed her examination, her expression tells me all I need to know: I am just another unenlightened lackey of the repressive bourgeoisie, a terror tourist, half a man at best. Why should she bother with me? She bothers all the same. She will make a brief mission statement, she says, if not for my sake, then her own. Intellectually she is probably a communist, she concedes, analysing herself objectively, but not necessarily a communist in the Soviet sense. She prefers to think of herself as not confined by any single doctrine. Her mission is to the unawakened bourgeoisie of whom she considers her parents prime examples. Her father shows signs of enlightenment, her mother as yet none. West Germany is a Nazi country run by bourgeois state fascists of the Auschwitz generation. The proletariat merely follows their example.

She returns to the subject of her parents. She has hopes of converting them, her father especially. She has given much thought to how she will break down the subconscious barriers in them, left behind by Nazism. Is this a coded way of saying she misses her parents, I wonder? Even that she loves them? That she worries herself sick about them day and night? As if to correct any such bourgeois-sentimental thoughts, she launches off on a list of her guiding prophets: Habermas, Marcuse, Frantz Fanon and a couple I haven’t heard of. From there, she discourses on the evils of armed capitalism, the remilitarization of West Germany, imperialist America’s support of fascist dictators such as the Shah of Iran, and other issues where I might have agreed with her were she faintly interested in my opinions, but she isn’t.

‘And now I would like to go back to my cell, please, Major Kaufmann.’

With another ironic bob and a handshake for me, she indicates to the wardresses that they may take her away.

Major Kaufmann has not left her place in the corner of the room, and I have not left mine at the table opposite Brigitte’s empty chair. The silence between us is a little strange. It’s as if we’re both emerging from the same bad dream.

‘Did you get what you came for?’ Major Kaufmann asks.

‘Yes, thank you. It was very interesting.’

‘Brigitte is a little confused today, I would say.’

To which I reply, yes, well, to be honest, I’m a little confused myself. And it’s only now, in my self-absorption, that I realize we are speaking German, and that Major Kaufmann’s German has no distinguishing traces, Yiddish or other. She notices my surprise, and answers my unspoken question.

‘I only ever speak English with her,’ she explains. ‘German, never. Not one word. When she speaks German, I cannot trust myself.’ And as if further explanation were needed: ‘You see, I was in Dachau.’