Lunching with prisoners - The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré

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

Chapter 32. Lunching with prisoners

There were six of us gathered round the lunch table that summer’s day in Paris in the early days of the new millennium. Our host was a French publisher, and we were assembled to celebrate the success of my friend François Bizot, who had recently published a prize-winning memoir.*

Bizot, a Buddhist scholar and a fluent Khmer-speaker, remains the only Westerner to have been taken prisoner by Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge and survive. In October 1971, while working at the Angkor Conservation Centre, he was captured by the Khmer Rouge, kept in barbarous circumstances and subjected to three months of intense interrogation by the notorious Douch, who wished him to confess to being a CIA spy.

Somehow interrogator and prisoner developed a mysterious affinity, derived partly from Bizot’s deep knowledge of ancient Buddhist culture, and partly, I suspect, from his sheer power of personality. Then, in what was surely a similarly extraordinary act of courage, Douch wrote a report to the Khmer Rouge high command exonerating Bizot from the charge of espionage. Extraordinarily also, Bizot was released, and Douch went on to manage one of Pol Pot’s largest torture and execution centres. In my novel The Secret Pilgrim, there is a story about ‘Jungle Hansen’, where at several removes I attempt - unsuccessfully I fear - to do justice to Bizot’s experience.

As we sat at table, it was a full thirty years since Bizot’s ordeal, yet the fate of Douch still hung in the balance, his trial repeatedly delayed by political apathy and intrigue. And Bizot, we were now learning, had meanwhile rallied to his cause. His argument, vigorously expressed as ever, was that many of Douch’s accusers in the present Khmer government were themselves steeped in blood, and wished only to make Douch responsible for all their sins.

Bizot was therefore conducting a one-man campaign, not in defence of Douch, but to demonstrate that he was neither more nor less guilty than those who were presuming to judge him.

While Bizot set out his case we all listened attentively, save for one guest who remained curiously unmoved. He was sitting directly across the table from me, a small, intense man with a wide brow and a dark, alert gaze that kept returning to mine. He had been introduced to me as the writer Jean-Paul Kauffmann, and I had read his recent book The Dark Room at Longwood with great pleasure. Longwood was the house in St Helena where Napoleon had spent his last humiliating years of exile. Kauffmann had made the long sea journey to St Helena, and described with impressive empathy the solitude, claustrophobia and systematic degradation of the world’s most famous, admired and reviled prisoner.

Not having been told in advance that I was about to meet the author, I was able to express my spontaneous pleasure. So why on earth was he now eyeing me with such disfavour? Had I misspoken in some way? Did he know something disgraceful about me, always possible? Or had we met before and I’d clean forgotten, which even in those days was a racing possibility?

Either I must have asked him something to this effect, or my body language asked it for me. In a sudden reversal of roles, it was my turn to do the staring.

In May 1985, Jean-Paul Kauffmann, French foreign correspondent, had been taken hostage in Beirut by Hezbollah, whose secret prisoner he remained for three years. When his captors needed to move him from one safe house to another, they gagged him, bound him from head to foot and rolled him up in an oriental blanket in which he nearly died of asphyxia. He had been staring at me across the lunch table because in one of the hideouts where he was confined he had come upon a crumpled paperback novel of mine and devoured it over and over again, investing in it, I am sure, greater profundities than it had ever contained. He explained this to me in the matter-of-fact tone that I was familiar with in other victims of torture, for whom the unbanished experience has become part of the daily grind of life.

And I, speechless in response. For what, after all, was there to say? ‘Thank you for reading me’? ‘Sorry if my profundities were a bit on the shallow side’?

So probably I just tried to sound as humble as I felt, and probably after we parted I went back to The Dark Room at Longwood and made the connection I ought to have made when I’d read it: that this was one haunted prisoner writing about another - perhaps the greatest prisoner of all time.

The lunch took place at the beginning of the century, but the memory remains fresh although I have not met Kauffmann since, or corresponded with him. So while writing this book I looked him up on the internet, established that he was alive, and after some asking around, got his email address, with the warning that he might not respond.

I had by then also noted, I confess in some surprise, that the book that by a miracle of chance had saved him from despair and madness had been Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace which, like my own novel apparently, he had also devoured; and surely he had drawn from it a great deal more spiritual and intellectual nourishment than anything mine had to offer. Were there then two lucky finds? Or was one of our memories playing tricks with us?

Cautiously, I wrote to him, and after a few weeks this is what he generously wrote in reply:

During my captivity I missed books enormously. Occasionally our jailers would bring them. The arrival of a book brought a sense of indescribable happiness. I would read it not just once, twice, forty times, but also reread it by starting at the end or in the middle. I hoped that this game might occupy me for at least two months. During my three years of misery, I experienced intense moments of joy. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was one of those moments. I saw it as a nod from fate; our jailers brought us any old thing: cheap novels, the second volume of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, incomprehensible treatises. But this time, here was a writer I admired … I had read all of your books including The Spy but in my new circumstances it was not the same book. It didn’t even seem to have anything to do with my memory of it. Everything had changed. Each line was fraught with meaning. In a situation like mine, reading became a serious and even dangerous business because the slightest fact felt connected to this game of double or quits, which is the very existence of a hostage. The opening of a cell door, announcing the arrival of a Hezbollah official, could mean freedom or death. Every sign, every allusion became an omen, symbol or parable. There are many in The Spy.

With this book, I felt that climate of concealment and manipulation (the Shiite taqiyya) in my innermost being. Our captors were far from having the professionalism of the men of the KGB or the CIA but, like them, they were conceited fools, brutal cynics who used religion and the credulity of young militants to satisfy their appetite for power.

Like your characters, my captors were experts in paranoia: pathological mistrust, manic rage, false judgement, delusions, systematic aggression, a neurotic appetite for lies. Leamas’ arid and absurd world, where human lives are nothing but pawns, was our world. How often have I felt like an abandoned man, forsaken. And above all, exhausted. This duplicitous world also taught me to reflect on my profession as a journalist. In the end, we are double agents. Or triple. We must empathize with others to understand and be accepted, then we betray.

Your vision of mankind is pessimistic. We are pitiful creatures; individually we don’t count for much. Happily, this doesn’t apply to everyone (see the character of Liz).

In this book I found reasons to hope. The most important is a voice, a presence. Yours. The jubilation of a writer who describes a cruel and colourless world and delights in rendering it so grey and hopeless. You feel it almost physically. Someone is talking to you, you are no longer alone. In my jail, I was no longer abandoned. A man came into my cell with his words and his vision of the world. Someone shared their power with me. I would make it through …*

And there you are; that’s human memory for you, Kauffmann’s, mine, both. I could have sworn the book he was talking about over lunch was Smiley’s People, not The Spy Who Came in from the Cold, and that seems to be my wife’s memory too.