The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)
Chapter 35. The most wanted man
The mysterious early-morning phone call came from Karel Reisz, the Czech-born British film director best known at that time for Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. It is 1967, and I am trying my hardest to live alone in an ugly penthouse in Maida Vale. Reisz and I have been working together, unsuccessfully as it turned out, on a screenplay of a novel of mine called The Naive and Sentimental Lover, not everybody’s cup of tea to say the least. But Reisz isn’t calling about our movie script, as I can tell from his voice, which is sonorous and conspiratorial.
‘David, are you alone?’
Yes, Karel, very.
‘Then if you could pop round here just as soon as possible, that would be a help.’
The Reisz family lived no great distance away in a red-brick Victorian house in Belsize Park. Probably I walked there. When your marriage is failing, you walk. Reisz opened the front door so fast he must have been watching out for me. Having dropped the lock, he led me to the big kitchen, which was where life in the Reisz household was lived: seated round a thick, circular pine table with sugar biscuits on a rotating lazy susan, with pots of tea and coffee strewn over it, and jugs of fruit juice, and a busy telephone on a long cord, and in those days lots of ashtrays; all this in part for the convenience of such improbable habitués as Vanessa Redgrave, Simone Signoret and Albert Finney, who would drift in, help themselves, chat a bit and drift out. I have always imagined that before Reisz’s parents were murdered in Auschwitz, this was the way they had lived.
I sat down. There were five faces staring at me: the actress Betsy Blair, who was Reisz’s wife, for once not talking on the telephone; the movie director Lindsay Anderson of This Sporting Life fame, which Reisz had produced for him. And seated between these two film directors, a smiling, nervous, charismatic younger man of classically Slav looks whom I had never seen before.
‘David, this is Vladimir,’ Reisz said gravely, at which the young man sprang to his feet and shook my hand vigorously - I could almost say desperately - across the table.
And seated close behind this effusive young man, a young woman who, judging by her studious concern for him, had more the appearance of a minder than a lover, or - in that setting - of a theatrical agent or casting director, for the young man, even at a glance, had presence.
‘Vladimir is a Czech actor,’ Reisz announced.
‘And he wants to remain in Britain.’
Oh, really. I see - or something of the kind from me.
Anderson’s turn: ‘We thought that with your sort of background you’d know the people who handle this stuff.’
General silence round the table. Everyone waits for me to say something.
‘So defect,’ I suggest lamely. ‘Vladimir wants to defect.’
‘If that’s what you want to call it,’ Anderson says disparagingly, and the silence returns.
It is becoming apparent to me that Anderson has some sort of proprietorial interest in Vladimir, and that Reisz, the bilingual fellow Czech, is more intermediary than prime mover. This made for a certain awkwardness. I had met Anderson on three occasions at best, none of them comfortable. For some unexplained reason, we had got off on the wrong foot, and stayed there. Born to a military family in India, Anderson had been educated at a British public school (Cheltenham, which he later punished with his film If … ) and at Oxford. In the war he had served in military intelligence in Delhi. And it was this last, I believe, that from the outset had disposed him against me. As an avowed socialist who was at daggers drawn with the Establishment that had spawned him, he had cast me as some kind of backstairs apparatchik in the class struggle, and there wasn’t much I could usefully do about it.
‘Vladimir is actually Vladimir Pucholt,’ I hear Reisz explain. And when my reaction falls short of whatever they all expect of me - which is to say, I do not give out a gasp of admiration, or cry ‘not the Vladimir Pucholt’ - Reisz hurries in with an explanation, to be quickly enlarged upon by the rest of the table. Vladimir Pucholt, I learn to my humiliation, is a shining Czech star of stage and screen, best known for his leading role in Miloš Forman’s A Blonde in Love (also translated, irritatingly, as Loves of a Blonde), which enjoyed international success. Forman also used him in his earlier films, and has declared Vladimir to be his favourite actor.
‘Which means in short’ - Anderson again, aggressively, as if I have questioned Pucholt’s worth and he feels obliged to correct me - ‘that any country that takes him can count itself bloody lucky. Which I trust you will make clear to your people.’
But I haven’t got any people. The only people I have of the official or nearly official variety are my former colleagues in the spy world. And God forbid that I should call up one or other of them and tell him I have a potential Czech defector on my hands. I can readily imagine the kind of solicitous question that Pucholt would be invited to answer, like: are you a plant by Czech Intelligence and, if so, can you be turned? Or: name for us other Czech dissidents presently in Czechoslovakia who might be interested in working for us. And, assuming you haven’t already bubbled your intentions to your twelve best friends, might you consider returning to Czechoslovakia and doing a little of this and that for us?
But Pucholt, I am beginning to sense, would have given them short shrift. He is no kind of fugitive, or not in his own eyes. He arrived in England legally, with the blessing of the Czech authorities. Before leaving, he discreetly put his affairs in order, fulfilling all outstanding film and theatre contracts and taking care to sign no new ones. He has visited Britain before, and the Czech authorities had no reason to suppose that this time he won’t be coming back.
On his arrival in Britain, it seems, he at first went to ground. By some indistinct route, Lindsay Anderson then got to hear of his intentions and offered help. Pucholt and Anderson knew each other from Prague and London. Anderson then turned to his friend Reisz, and between the three of them a plan of sorts was drawn up. Pucholt had made clear from the outset that in no circumstance would he apply for political asylum. To do so, he argued, would bring down the wrath of the Czech authorities on those he had left behind - friends, family, teachers, fellow professionals. Perhaps he had in mind the example of the Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, whose defection six years earlier had been trumpeted as a victory for the West. As a result, Nureyev’s friends and family in Russia had been cast into outer darkness.
With this stipulation foremost in their minds, Reisz, Anderson and Pucholt put their plan into effect. There would be no fanfares, no special-case treatment. Pucholt would be just one more disaffected young East European man walking off the street and seeking the indulgence of the British authorities. Together, Anderson and Pucholt set out for the Home Office and took their places in the queue for those seeking to extend their United Kingdom visas. Arriving at the desk of the Home Office clerk, Pucholt shoved his Czech passport through the little window.
‘For how long?’ the clerk asked, his rubber stamp poised.
To which Anderson, never one to mince his words, least of all when addressing a lackey of the class system he abhors, retorts ‘For ever.’
I have a clear picture of the lengthy exchanges that now took place between Pucholt and the senior Home Office official assigned to his case.
In the one corner we have the laudable confusion of a ranking civil servant determined to do the right thing by the applicant, but also by the rulebook. All he asks is that Pucholt state unequivocally that were he to return to his home country, he would be persecuted. Once he’s done that, fine, box ticked, visa extended indefinitely, and welcome to Britain, Mr Pucholt.
And in the other corner we have the laudable obstinacy of Pucholt, who flatly refuses to say what is asked of him, because by saying it he will have claimed political asylum, and thereby imperilled the people he has vowed not to imperil. So, no sir, I would not be persecuted, thank you. I am a popular Czech actor, and I would be welcomed back with open arms. I might be rebuked, I might suffer some token retribution. But I would not be persecuted, and I am not seeking political asylum, thank you.
And there is even a bit of black comedy to be had in this stand-off. Back home in Czechoslovakia, Pucholt had fallen into serious disfavour, and been forbidden to act in any film for two years. He had been invited - ordered is a better word - to play the part of a Czech borstal boy who, after being inspired by his dedicated borstal teachers in the highest principles of Marxism-Leninism, finds himself unable to handle life in the less enlightened, bourgeois-oriented society to which he has been restored.
Unimpressed by the script, Pucholt had asked to spend a few days as a borstal inmate. Having done so, he was more certain than ever that the play was rubbish and, to the dismay of his handlers, declined the part. Tempers flared, contracts were thrust at him, but he wouldn’t budge. The result: a two-year ban that in better circumstances he could perfectly well have used as grounds for claiming he was the victim of political persecution in his home country.
A week passed before Pucholt was once more invited to the Home Office, this time to be informed by a conflicted official, in the best tradition of British compromise, that while he would not be forcibly repatriated to Czechoslovakia, he would have to leave Britain within ten days.
Which is where we are now, seated round the Reisz table in a state of muted alarm. Either the ten days are up, or they’re about to be, so what do you suggest we do about it, David? And the short answer is, David has no idea what we do about it: and all the less so when somewhere in our circular discussions it emerges that Pucholt has not come to Britain in order to pursue his stellar acting career, but ‘because, David’ - as he earnestly explains to me across the table - ‘I wish to become doctor’.
He concedes that becoming a doctor will take a bit of time. He calculates seven years. He has a few basic Czech qualifications, but doubts whether they will count for much in the United Kingdom.
I hear him say all this. I recognize the fervour in his voice and the zeal in his expressive Slav features. I try my best to look wise and smile approvingly at this noble vision of self-dedication.
But I know something about actors. And I know, as everyone round the table knows, how actors are able to latch on to a hypothetical version of themselves and become it; but only for as long as the show lasts. After that, it’s off they go again, in search of the next new person to become.
‘Well, that’s great, Vladimir,’ I exclaim, temporizing for all I’m worth. ‘Still, I guess that while you’re doing your medical training, you’ll keep one foot in the acting world, won’t you? Brush up your English, do a bit of theatre, take on the odd movie role that comes up?’ - casting an eye at our two film directors for support, and not getting any.
Not so, David, he replies. He has been an actor since boyhood. He has been swept from one role to another - often roles for which he has no regard, for example the borstal boy - and now he intends to become a doctor, which is why he wishes to remain in Britain. I glance round the table. Nobody seems surprised. Everyone but me accepts that Vladimir Pucholt, Czech heart-throb of stage and screen, wishes only to become doctor. Do they ask themselves, as I do, whether this is an actor’s fantasy rather than a life’s ambition? I have no way to tell.
But it barely matters, because by now I have agreed to be the man they think I am. I will speak to my people, I hear myself saying, even though I haven’t got any people. I will find the best way to bring this matter to a successful and speedy conclusion, as we backstairs apparatchiks have it. I will go home now, but I will be in touch. Exits left, head held high.
In the half-century that has since elapsed, I have occasionally asked myself why on earth I offered to do all this when Anderson and Reisz, as world-class film directors, had many more people within their reach, more friends in high places than I ever had, not to mention smart lawyers. Reisz, I knew for a fact, was hugger-mugger with Lord Goodman, éminence grise and legal adviser to Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Anderson, for all his socialist rigour, had impeccable upper-class credentials and, like Reisz, close connections with the ruling Labour Party.
I think the answer may be that, with my life in a God-awful mess, it was a relief to be sorting out someone else’s. As a young soldier in Austria, I had interrogated scores of refugees from Eastern Europe on the off chance that one or two of them were spies. None to my knowledge was, but quite a few were Czech. Here at least was one I could do something about.
I am not sure any more where Vladimir slept over the next few nights, whether it was at Reisz’s house, or the house of his companion, or Lindsay Anderson’s house, or even mine. But I do remember that he spent long daylight hours in my ugly penthouse, pacing or standing at the big picture window and staring out.
Meanwhile, I am pulling every string I know to have the Home Office decision overturned. I ring my genial British publisher. He suggests I phone the Home Affairs correspondent of the Guardian newspaper. I do. The Home Affairs correspondent has no direct line to the Home Secretary, who is Roy Jenkins, but he does happen to know Mrs Jenkins. Or rather his wife does. He will talk to his wife now, and call me back.
My hopes rise. Roy Jenkins is a brave and outspoken liberal. The Guardian correspondent calls me back. So here’s what you do. You write the Home Secretary a strictly formal letter, no flattery, no schmaltz. ‘Dear Home Secretary.’ You type it, you set out the facts and sign it. If your man wants to be a doctor, say so in the letter and don’t pretend he’s going to be God’s gift to the National Theatre. But here’s the difference. You address the envelopenot to Roy Jenkins, Esquire, but to Mrs Jenkins, his wife. She will make sure the letter is sitting on his breakfast table tomorrow morning, next to his boiled egg. And you hand-deliver it. Tonight. To this address.
I don’t type. I have never typed. The penthouse contains an electric typewriter, but there’s nobody around to use it. I call Jane. In those days, Jane and I are circling round each other. Today she is my wife. With Pucholt staring out at the London skyline, I write a ‘Dear Home Secretary’ letter and Jane types it. I address the envelope to Mrs Jenkins, seal it, and we set off for Notting Hill, or wherever Mr & Mrs Jenkins live.
Forty-eight hours later, Vladimir Pucholt is granted leave to remain in Britain indefinitely. No evening newspaper crows about a celebrated Czech movie star defecting to the Western cause. He may start his medical studies as soon, and as quietly, as he wishes. The news reaches me while I am lunching with my literary agent. I return to the penthouse to find Vladimir no longer staring out of the window, but standing out on the balcony in jeans and trainers. It’s a warm, sunny afternoon. From a sheet of A4 paper on my desk, he has cut himself a paper glider. Leaning too far forward over the railings for my comfort, he waits for a favourable breeze, launches it and watches it potter away over the London rooftops. Up till now, he later explained to me, he hadn’t been able to fly. But now that he had permission to stay, it was all right.
This is not about to become a story about my boundless generosity. It’s about Vladimir’s achievement in becoming one of Toronto’s best-loved and most dedicated paediatricians.
Somehow or other - and to this day I’m not sure how - I became responsible for footing the bill for his medical training in Britain. Even at the time, that seemed an entirely natural thing to do. I was at the height of my earning power, Vladimir was at the nadir of his. My offer of support deprived me of nothing. It caused me and my family not one second of hardship, then or ever. Vladimir’s financial needs, by his own insistence, were frighteningly modest. His determination to repay every penny as soon as possible was ferocious. To spare the two of us awkward discussion, I left it to my accountant to settle the figures with him: this much to live on, this much to study, this much for transport, rent, and so on. The negotiations went into reverse. I pressed for more, Vladimir for less.
His first medical job was as a laboratory assistant in London. From London he moved to a teaching hospital in Sheffield. In painstaking letters of lyrical, greatly improved English, he extolled the miracle of medicine, of surgery, of healing and of the human body as a work of creation. His specializations are in paediatric medicine and neonatal intensive care. With unabashed enthusiasm, he writes even today of the thousands of children and babies who have passed through his care.
I have always found it humbling, and slightly embarrassing, to have played the role of angel at so little sacrifice to myself and to such extraordinary benefit to others. And more embarrassing still that, almost to the day of his qualification, I never entirely believed that he would make it.
It is now 2007, a full forty years since Vladimir launched his paper glider from the balcony of the penthouse that I have long since got rid of. I am living half in Cornwall, half in Hamburg, while I write a novel called A Most Wanted Man about a young asylum seeker, not from Czechoslovakia as was, but from today’s Chechnya. He is only half a Slav; the other half of him is Chechen. His name is Issa, meaning Jesus, and he is a Muslim, not a Christian. His one ambition is to study to become a great doctor and cure the suffering people of his homeland, children a speciality.
Imprisoned in the attic of a Hamburg warehouse while the spies fight over his future, he fashions paper gliders from a roll of unused wallpaper and makes them fly across the room to freedom.
Sooner than I could have believed possible, Vladimir repaid every penny he ever borrowed from me. What he didn’t know - and neither did I until I came to write A Most Wanted Man - was that he had made me the non-returnable gift of a fictional character.