John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man (2008)
John Le Carré is a master storyteller. His prose is detailed, melodic, and, most of the time, gripping. He’s best known for the masterful Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which brings the reader into the decades-long chess match between British intelligence and the KGB.
A Most Wanted Man is Le Carré’s first step in writing a novel for a world shaped by the war on terror rather than the Cold War.
It is, in many respects, a dystopian tale in which none of the characters emerges uncompromised or pristine.
In his Guardian review, Hari Kunzu notes that Le Carré: “depict[s] a bleak world in which the clarity of ideology, morality, patriotism, professional duty and personal loyalty [dissolve] into a fog in which his characters flounder, groping for some sort of basis on which to live and act.”
In this respect, it much like his other books where, even the venerable Smiley, is marked by a moral stain in the form of his indifference to the depredations of his wife.
The story centers on the fate of a young, physically and psychologically damaged Russian by the name of Issa. He comes to the attention of a young German lawyer, Annabel Richter. Richter represents undocumented aliens and helping them to claim asylum and find a new life in Germany. Young and idealistic her vigorous professional concern is fueled by the pain of her recent failure with another client, one returned to almost certain death in a land he escaped.
Issa has arrived in Germany by an illegal and circuitous route. Claiming to be a devout Muslim, he has come to Germany in possession of a name and an account number and key that he claims will enable him to have the financial resources both to give generously to Muslim charities and study to become a doctor.
Enter jaded ex-pat banker Tommy Brue. Brue is the head of a family bank that has a closet full of questionable accounts. These “Lipinzaners”–named for the famous horses–are full of dirty money with origins in the fall of the Soviet Union and the rise of gangland capitalism. One of these accounts exists for the benefit of a Russian officer whose affair with a Chechnyan woman has Issa as the issue.
Even as Issa attempts to secure his status in Germany and to fund his education, a new set of characters is watching from afar. Gunther Bachmann and his colaborers in German intelligence are hunting for Issa whom they believe to be a radical Muslim and a national security threat.
Issa makes an unconvincing radical. As I read I found myself thinking of Prince Myshkin from Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. Indeed, like Myshkin, he is a character both puzzling and filled with inconsistencies. He is passionate in his vocal allegiance to Islam yet his belief is simple, lacking even the most rudimentary doctrinal knowledge. He loathes the west but loves classical music.
As Kunzu notes, “At [times Issa] is little more than a cipher, a faint echo of Prince Myshkin in The Idiot, a “monk with coal-dark eyes” who speaks in a wildly uneven linguistic register, sometimes childlike, sometimes incongruously using words such as “malodorous”.” He continues, “Issa is another incarnation of a familiar Le Carré type, the loose cannon, someone whose psychological precariousness and social disconnection make them disruptive of the established order – and useful to the puppeteers of the human soul who run the intelligence services.”
In reading A Most Wanted Man we enter a world that is morally gray. Black and white have blended into one another and all that remains is differing shades of a single color. Le Carré does a masterful job of bringing to life the strange experience that befalls a person when he somehow, intentionally or otherwise, enters into the parallel universe of espionage and counter-espionage. Strongly recommended.
Hari Kunzu, “Trapdoor to the Secret World,” The Guardian (26 Sep 2008).