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Jonathan Yardley on 'A Most Wanted Man'

An idealistic German lawyer takes on the case of a stateless Chechen Muslim.

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By Jonathan Yardley
Sunday, October 5, 2008; Page BW15

A MOST WANTED MAN

By John le Carré

This Story

Scribner. 323 pp. $28

Not satisfied, apparently, with continuing to write his generally first-rate novels, John le Carré has now taken to reviewing them as well. On the front cover of the advance edition of A Most Wanted Man is reproduced a letter from the great man addressed to "Dear Reader": "New spies with new loyalties, old ones with old ones; terror as the new mantra; decent people wanting to do good, but caught in the moral maze; all the good, sound, rational reasons for doing the inhuman thing; the recognition that we cannot safely love, or pity, & remain good 'patriots' -- I'm pleased with the way this novel turned out. Best, John le Carré."

So what, after that, is the mere reviewer to do? Were he or she to say, perhaps, that "John le Carré has written an interesting new novel about decent people wanting to do good, but trapped in moral dilemmas," readers would say that this interpretation merely parrots and paraphrases le Carré's, and they would be right. One of the reviewer's tasks, after all, is to interpret a book as well as to pass judgment on it, but in this instance, le Carré has done all our interpreting for us, and has even tacked on the judgment that he is jolly well happy about what he has written. Probably, his self-satisfied little note was written for booksellers rather than reviewers, but since it has landed in the laps of reviewers as well, it has the feeling of a pre-emptive strike.

There's just one problem. Though le Carré's interpretation of his novel's themes is accurate enough, his judgment of its literary worth is considerably inflated. As one who has reviewed his work for more than three decades, always with admiration and at times with unfettered enthusiasm, I'd place A Most Wanted Man toward the lower end of the 21 novels he has now written. It is intelligent, of course, and immensely informative about espionage and the people who engage in it, but its prose occasionally is flabby (especially when the heroine is involved), the feelings its central characters have for each other are utterly unconvincing, and it ends on a note of clichéd, knee-jerk anti-Americanism that I find repellent. Now in his late 70s, le Carré perhaps has earned the right to phone a novel in, and phoned-in is what this one is.

It is set in Hamburg: "Nobody was likely to forget, be he Muslim, police spy or both, that the city-state of Hamburg had been unwitting host to three of the 9/11 hijackers, not to mention their fellow cell-members and plotters; or that Mohammed Atta, who steered the first plane into the Twin Towers, had worshiped his wrathful god in a humble Hamburg mosque." A young Chechen Muslim calling himself Issa, "stateless, homeless, an ex-prisoner and illegal," shows up at the modest residence of Leyla Oktay and her son Melik, immigrants from Turkey who are in the city on temporary residency permits. They are good people, and they welcome Issa almost immediately, Leyla treating him as a son and Melik as a brother. He is referred to Sanctuary North, "a Charitable Christian Foundation for the protection of stateless and displaced persons in the Region of North Germany," and his case is taken over by Annabel Richter, a no-nonsense young lawyer there.

Tough cookie she may be, but she manages to convince herself in no time flat that Issa's story is true: that he had been imprisoned and tortured in Turkey, had escaped to Denmark and from there to Germany, and had a large amount of money waiting for him at "the private banking house of Brue Frères PLC, formerly of Glasgow, Rio de Janeiro and Vienna, and presently [sic] of Hamburg," the head of which is the 60-year-old Tommy Brue, "the bank's sole surviving partner and bearer of its famous name." The money had been left to Issa by his father, a wholly corrupt Russian gangster who raped and eventually murdered the young Chechen girl who gave birth to Issa.

Everyone is awash in emotions. Issa is afraid of being thrown back into prison and tortured. Tommy, trapped in an unhappy marriage to a faithless wife, finds himself falling for Annabel, who is (of course) lovely and sexy as well as smart. As for Annabel, she is on a mission: "The moment I sat down with Issa and heard his story, I knew that this was where the system stops, that this was the unsavable life I must save, that I must think of myself not as a lawyer but as a doctor like my brother Hugo and ask myself: What is my duty to this injured man, what sort of a German lawyer am I if I leave him in the legal gutter to bleed to death?" She says she's "doing this for the principle, not the man," but there comes a moment "when she felt most inclined to fall in love with him, when intimacy on such a scale became an act of stupendous generosity, and her whole being was responding to him," though "that way lay the negation of the promise she had made to herself: to put his life -- and not his love -- before law."

Others take a considerably less sanguine view of Issa. Many of these are to be found in "the cramped quarters of the Foreign Acquisitions Unit of Hamburg's grandly named Office for the Protection of the Constitution -- in plain language, domestic intelligence service," especially in the offices of "The Unit," directed by Günther Bachmann, an ace intelligence operator who is trying to reform and improve German intelligence. Bachmann, who is by far the most interesting character in the novel, has this to say about Issa:

"We're looking for a man who has no patronymic and no relationship with normality. His record tells us he's a militant Chechen-Russian who does violent crime and bribes his way out of Turkish jail -- and what the hell was he doing there anyway? -- gives the slip to the Swedish port police, buys himself back onto the boat he comes off, smuggles himself out of Copenhagen docks, charters himself a lorry to Hamburg, accepts a beaker of refreshment from an elderly fat bastard whom he engages in conversation in Christ knows whose language, and wears a gold Koran bracelet. Such a man deserves our considerable respect. Amen?"

Thus the lines are drawn between Issa, Annabel and Tommy on one side, the intelligence operatives on the other. There is a further division within intelligence, between hard-liners who believe that "high-profile arrests will serve as a deterrent to Islamist sympathizers, and restore confidence in those responsible for seeking them out" and more nimble thinkers who reason as Bachmann does: "We are not policemen, we are spies. We do not arrest our targets. We develop them and redirect them at bigger targets. When we identify a network, we watch it, we listen to it, we penetrate it and by degrees we control it. Arrests are of negative value. They destroy a precious acquisition. They send you scrabbling back to the drawing board, looking for another network half as good as the one you've just screwed up."

A good point well made, and a considerably more important one to this novel than any of the themes cited by le Carré in his letter to readers. As he writes elsewhere, "in the end it was the spurned imam, the love-crossed secret courier, the venal Pakistani defense scientist, the middle-ranking Iranian military officer who's been passed over for promotion, the lonely sleeper who can sleep alone no longer, who among them provide the hard base of knowledge without which all the rest is fodder for the truth benders, ideologues and politopaths who ruin the earth." Such a "base of knowledge" is what Bachmann is trying to create within Germany's Muslim community, and what the hard-liners -- in British and American as well as German intelligence -- are vigorously resisting. How this conflict plays out is essential to the novel's conclusion.

The anti-American note struck there is not new to le Carré -- it has coursed through his work much as it did in the fiction of Graham Greene -- but it is expressed in A Most Wanted Man with special virulence. No doubt this reflects the author's opposition to innumerable aspects of recent American foreign policy, but he seems neither to know nor to care that many Americans share that opposition. The CIA people who crash onto the scene at the end are mere cartoons. Le Carré, who is capable of great subtlety and nuance, here is all bludgeon and righteous anger. It is not pretty to watch, and it diminishes him. ·

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardleyj@washpost.com.


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