Review – A Most Wanted Man

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John Le Carré, A Most Wanted Man (2008)

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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).


Escaping Christmas craziness

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ImageIf you’re like me you have a love-hate relationship with the American “holiday season,” perhaps skewed slightly more to hate than love. On the one hand, it’s so much fun to see our kids get excited about wearing their new Christmas pajamas–snuggly little bundles of holiday-themed energy. On the other hand, there’s the traffic and decisions about budgets and gifts. I often experience a strange melancholy in realizing that some of the things I most want–more time, a sunny vacation with Anna, a PhD–aren’t going to be under the tree on December 25. Sometimes the holidays seem like a straightjacket more than a celebration–a period of crazy added to an already full life. 

Stir up your power, O Lord, and with great might come among us;

and, because we are sorely hindered by our sins,

let your bountiful grace and mercy speedily help and deliver us;

through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit,

be honor and glory, now and forever. Amen.

Prayer for the Third Week of Advent, Book of Common Prayer

There is a growing body of literature demonstrating that human beings are innately inclined to benefit from ritual and habit. In a sense, contemporary research is demonstrating a long-forgotten theological truth that freedom is not the ability to choose between alternatives without coercion, but the ability to choose the good. We learn to choose the good by practice.

That’s why the church calendar is a pre-modern resource that can help combat what I call Christmas craziness. You may be new to the practice or it may be something you’ve experienced your whole life. I find that those who are new often benefit from a guide that can orient them to the church year. Those who’ve always practiced it often benefit from this sort of guide too. Liturgical practices may become so comfortable that they lose their theological moorings and become disconnected to their purpose.

A new book offers help to both types of Christian. Let Us Keep the Feast provides an overview of the theological meaning of the seasons of the Christian Year and guidance in how to observe it.

For each season of the year the book provides:

  • An introduction to the season
  • The calendar days the season occupies
  • Traditions–old and new–that are associated with the season
  • Explanations of how the season is observed around the globe
  • Ways you can observe the season in your home and in your community
  • Resources you can use.

The publishers website makes the following observation:

Our days and our weeks are part of God’s created order; the sun setting and rising, the regular shift from work to rest: all of these form a rhythm for our lives, a rhythm that the church has historically observed through a set calendar of feasts and fasts.

Maybe you’ve used an Advent calendar to count down the days till Christmas. Or you might have recently tried giving up something for Lent. These practices are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the riches of the Christian church year.

Why do we celebrate seasons in the church? How can we do it well? And what does it mean for you?

Thousands of Christians wrestle with these questions, and others like them, every year — even every season. In this series of books, these questions are answered!

The first installment focuses on Advent and Christmastide. I encourage you to pick up a copy and choose a new tradition to incorporate into your family life this advent and Christmas.

The publisher agreed to send one of my readers of free copy of the Advent and Christmas volume. If you’d like to get a copy please complete the form below. I will choose randomly someone to receive the book.