John Le Carré’s memoir, Pigeon Tunnel (or is it David Cornwell’s memoir?) teems with con-men, fraudsters, spies, criminals, assassins, political subversives, and a gaggle of celebrities and one-percenters with whom they rub elbows at cocktail parties. I have never met any of the above, to my knowledge. Le Carré a.k.a. Cornwell’s elegantly-recounted anecdotes fascinated me, but the fascination gradually wore down to a residue of annoyance. Are there no ordinary people in Le Carré’s world? No loving mothers and fathers who do honest work, raise their kids as best they can, follow the rules, abide by the laws, and try to be the best people they can be? No. Such people do not make for exciting novels, which is why they are largely absent from Le Carré’s spy thrillers. Weirdly, though, they seem to have been equally absent from David Cornwell’s life.
Immediately upon finishing Pigeon Tunnel, however, I listened to the most recent episode of Rob Reiner’s podcast series, Who Killed JFK?, and there they were again: spies, assassins, criminals, political subversives. Then I recalled reading somewhere that the three most valuable commodities in world trade were petroleum, weapons, and illegal drugs—all of which required the services of often-crooked lawyers and international bankers—and the world began to look again more like David Cornwell’s world. And I remembered one of my favourite Chinese phrases, 他们都是流氓: they are all gangsters. I am reminded, too, of Harry Lime in The Third Man, when he meets Holly Martins in Vienna’s Prater and looks down from the top of the Riesenrad at the tiny figures below. “Victims? Don’t be melodramatic. Tell me. Would you really feel any pity if one of those dots stopped moving forever? If I offered you twenty thousand pounds for every dot that stopped, would you really, old man, tell me to keep my money, or would you calculate how many dots you could afford to spare? Free of income tax, old man. Free of income tax – the only way you can save money nowadays.”
So, are we deluded and naïve, we ordinary people who go to school and go to work and read books and listen to music and watch movies—do we live in willful ignorance on the fringes of a world fueled by greed and criminality? Or are the drug dealers and arms dealers and crooked bankers the deluded ones, fatuously believing that diamonds and caviar make life worth living?
Who are the suckers? Discuss.