A Most Wanted Man

By John le Carre
Simon & Schuster. 336 pp. $28
Oct. 3, 2008


Chapter One

A Turkish heavyweight boxing champion sauntering down a Hamburg street with his mother on his arm can scarcely be blamed for failing to notice that he is being shadowed by a skinny boy in a black coat.

Big Melik, as he was known to his admiring neighborhood, was a giant of a fellow, shaggy, unkempt and genial, with a broad natural grin and black hair bound back in a ponytail and a rolling, free-and-easy gait that, even without his mother, took up half the pavement. At the age of twenty he was in his own small world a celebrity, and not only for his prowess in the boxing ring: elected youth representative of his Islamic sports club, three times runner-up in the North German Championship hundred-meter butterfly stroke and, as if all that weren't enough, star goalkeeper of his Saturday soccer team.

Like most very large people, he was also more accustomed to being looked at than looking, which is another reason why the skinny boy got away with shadowing him for three successive days and nights.

The two men first made eye contact as Melik and his mother, Leyla, emerged from the al-Umma Travel Shop, fresh from buying air tickets for Melik's sister's wedding in their home village outside Ankara. Melik felt someone's gaze fixed on him, glanced round and came face-to-face with a tall, desperately thin boy of his own height with a straggly beard, eyes reddened and deep-set, and a long black coat that could have held three magicians. He had a black-and-white kaffiyeh round his neck and a tourist's camel-skin saddlebag slung over his shoulder. He stared at Melik, then at Leyla. Then he came back to Melik, never blinking, but appealing to him with his fiery, sunken eyes.

Yet the boy's air of desperation need not have troubled Melik all that much since the travel shop was situated at the edge of the main railway station concourse, where every variety of lost soul - German vagrants, Asians, Arabs, Africans, and Turkish like himself but less fortunate - hung around all day long, not to mention legless men on electric carts, drug sellers and their customers, beggars and their dogs, and a seventy-year-old cowboy in a Stetson and silver-studded leather riding breeches. Few had work, and a sprinkling had no business standing on German soil at all, but were at best tolerated under a deliberate policy of destitution, pending their summary deportation, usually at dawn. Only new arrivals or the willfully foolhardy took the risk. Cannier illegals gave the station a wide berth.

A further good reason to ignore the boy was the classical music that the station authorities boom at full blast over this section of the concourse from a battery of well-aimed loudspeakers. Its purpose, far from spreading feelings of peace and well-being among its listeners, is to send them packing.

Despite these impediments the skinny boy's face imprinted itself on Melik's consciousness and for a fleeting moment he felt embarrassed by his own happiness. Why on earth should he? Something splendid had just occurred, and he couldn't wait to phone his sister and tell her that their mother, Leyla, after six months of tending her dying husband, and a year of mourning her heart out for him, was bubbling over with pleasure at the prospect of attending her daughter's wedding, and fussing about what to wear, and whether the dowry was big enough, and the groom as handsome as everybody, including Melik's sister, said he was.

So why shouldn't Melik chatter along with his own mother? Which he did, enthusiastically, all the way home. It was the skinny boy's stillness, he decided later. Those lines of age in a face as young as mine. His look of winter on a lovely spring day.

That was the Thursday.

And on the Friday evening, when Melik and Leyla came out of mosque together, there he was again, the same boy, the same kaffiyeh and outsized overcoat, huddled in the shadow of a grimy doorway. This time Melik noticed that there was a sideways list to his skinny body, as if he'd been knocked off true and remained at that angle until somebody told him he could straighten up. And the fiery stare burning even more brightly than on the previous day. Melik met his gaze head-on, wished he hadn't and looked away.

And this second encounter was all the less probable because Leyla and Melik scarcely ever went to mosque, not even a moderate Turkish-language one. Since 9/11, Hamburg's mosques had become dangerous places. Go to the wrong one, or the right one and get the wrong imam, and you could find yourself and your family on a police watch list for the rest of your life. Nobody doubted that practically every prayer row contained an informant who was earning his way with the authorities. 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.

It was also a fact that since her husband's death Leyla and her son had become less observant of their faith. Yes, of course the old man had been a Muslim, and a laic too. But he was a militant supporter of workers' rights, which was why he had been driven out of his homeland. The only reason they had gone to mosque at all was that Leyla in her impulsive way had felt a sudden need. She was happy. The weight of her grief was lifting. Yet the first anniversary of her husband's death was approaching. She needed to have a dialogue with him and share the good news. They had already missed the main Friday prayer, and could just as well have prayed at home. But Leyla's whim was law. Arguing correctly that personal invocations stand a better chance of being heard if they are offered in the evening, she had insisted on attending the last prayer hour of the day, which incidentally meant that the mosque was as good as empty.

So clearly Melik's second encounter with the skinny boy, like the first, was mere chance. For what else could it be? Or so, in his plain way, the good-hearted Melik reasoned.

The next day being a Saturday, Melik took a bus across town to visit his affluent paternal uncle at the family candle factory. Relationships between his uncle and his father had at times been strained, but since his father's death he had learned to respect his uncle's friendship. Jumping aboard the bus, whom should he see but the skinny boy sitting below him in the glass shelter, watching him depart? And six hours later, when he returned to the same bus stop, the boy was still there, wrapped in his kaffiyeh and magician's overcoat, crouched in the same corner of the shelter, waiting.

At the sight of him Melik, who as a rule of life was pledged to love all mankind equally, was seized by an uncharitable aversion. He felt that the skinny boy was accusing him of something and he resented it. Worse, there was an air of superiority about him, despite his miserable condition. What did he think he was achieving with that ridiculous black coat, anyway? That it made him invisible or something? Or was he trying to imply that he was so unfamiliar with our Western ways that he had no idea of the image he created?

Either way, Melik determined to shake him off. So instead of going up to him and asking him whether he needed help, or was ill, which in other circumstances he might have done, he struck out for home at full stride, confident that the skinny boy stood no chance of keeping up with him.

The day was unseasonably hot for spring, and the sun was beating off the crowded pavement. Yet the skinny boy contrived by some kind of miracle to keep pace with Melik, limping and panting, wheezing and sweating, and now and then jumping in the air as if in pain, but still managing to draw up alongside him at pedestrian crossings.

And when Melik let himself into the tiny brick house that, after decades of family scrimping, his mother now owned almost free of debt, he had only to wait a few breaths before the front doorbell chimed its carillon. And when he returned downstairs, there stood the skinny boy on the doorstep with his saddlebag over his shoulder and his eyes blazing from the effort of the walk, and sweat pouring down his face like summer rain, and in his trembling hand he held a piece of brown cardboard on which was written in Turkish: I am a Muslim medical student. I am tired and I wish to stay in your house. Issa. And as if to ram the message home, round his wrist a bracelet of fine gold, and dangling from it, a tiny gold replica of the Koran.

But Melik by now had a full head of outrage. All right, he wasn't the greatest intellect his school had ever seen but he objected to feeling guilty and inferior, and being followed and preyed upon by a beggar with attitude. When his father died Melik had proudly assumed the role of master of the house and his mother's protector and, as a further assertion of his authority, done what his father had not succeeded in doing before his death: as a second-generation Turkish resident, he had launched himself and his mother on the long, stony road to German citizenship, where every aspect of a family's lifestyle was taken under the microscope, and eight years of unblemished behavior were the first prerequisite. The last thing he or his mother needed was some deranged vagrant claiming to be a medical student and begging on their doorstep.

"Get the hell out of here," he ordered the skinny boy roughly in Turkish, shaping up to him in the doorway. "Get out of here, stop following us and don't come back."

Meeting no reaction from the haggard face except a wince as if it had been struck, Melik repeated his instruction in German. But when he made to slam the door, he discovered Leyla standing on the stair behind him, looking over his shoulder at the boy and at the cardboard notice shaking uncontrollably in his hand.

And he saw that she already had tears of pity in her eyes.

Sunday passed and on the Monday morning Melik found excuses not to show up at his cousin's greengrocery business in Wellingsbüttel. He must stay home and train for the Amateur Open Boxing Championship, he told his mother. He must work out in the gym and in the Olympic pool. But in reality he had decided she was not safe to be left alone with an elongated psycho with delusions of grandeur who, when he wasn't praying or staring at the wall, prowled about the house, fondly touching everything as if he remembered it from long ago. Leyla was a peerless woman, in her son's judgment, but since her husband's death volatile and guided solely by her feelings. Those whom she chose to love could do no wrong. Issa's softness of manner, his timidity and sudden rushes of dawning happiness, made him an instant member of that select company.

On the Monday and again on the Tuesday, Issa did little except sleep, pray and bathe himself. To communicate he spoke broken Turkish with a peculiar, guttural accent, furtively, in bursts, as though talking were forbidden, and yet still in some unfathomable way, to Melik's ear, didactic. Otherwise he ate. Where on earth did he put all that food? At any hour of the day, Melik would walk into the kitchen and there he was, head bowed over a bowl of lamb and rice and vegetables, spoon never still, eyes slipping from side to side lest somebody snatch his food away. When he'd finished, he'd wipe the bowl clean with a piece of bread, eat the bread and, with a muttered "Thanks be to God" and a faint smirk on his face as if he had a secret that was too good to share with them, take the bowl to the sink and wash it under the tap, a thing Leyla would never in a month of Sundays have allowed her own son or husband to do. The kitchen was her domain. Men keep out.

"So when are you reckoning to start your medical studies, Issa?" Melik asked him casually, in his mother's hearing.

"God willing, it will be soon. I must be strong. I must not be beggar."

"You'll need a residence permit, you know. And a student's ID. Not to mention like a hundred thousand euros for board and lodging. And a neat little two-seater to take your girlfriends out."

"God is all-merciful. When I am not beggar, He will provide."

Such self-assurance went beyond mere piety in Melik's view.

"He's costing us real money, Mother," he declared, barging into the kitchen while Issa was safely in the attic. "The way he eats. All those baths."

"No more than you, Melik."

"No, but he's not me, is he? We don't know who he is."

"Issa is our guest. When he is restored to health, with Allah's help we shall consider his future," his mother replied loftily.

Issa's implausible efforts at self-effacement only made him more conspicuous in Melik's eyes. Sidling his way down the cramped corridor, or preparing to climb the stepladder to the attic where Leyla had made up a bed for him, he employed what Melik regarded as exaggerated circumspection, seeking permission with his doe eyes, and flattening himself against the wall when Melik or Leyla needed to pass.

"Issa has been in prison," Leyla announced complacently one morning.

Melik was appalled. "Do you know that for a fact? We're harboring a jailbird? Do the police know that for a fact? Did he tell you?"

"He said that in prison in Istanbul they give only one piece of bread and a bowl of rice a day," said Leyla, and before Melik could protest any more, added one of her late husband's favorite nostrums: "We honor the guest and go to the assistance of those in distress. No work of charity will go unrewarded in Paradise," she intoned. "Wasn't your own father in prison in Turkey, Melik? Not everyone who goes to prison is a criminal. For people like Issa and your father, prison is a badge of honor."

But Melik knew she had other thoughts up her sleeve that she was less inclined to reveal. Allah had answered her prayers. He had sent her a second son to make up for the husband she had lost. The fact that he was an illegal half-crazed jailbird with delusions about himself was of no apparent interest to her.

He was from Chechnya.

That much they established on the third evening when Leyla astonished them both by trilling out a couple of sentences of Chechen, a thing Melik never in his life had heard her do. Issa's haggard face lit up with a sudden amazed smile that vanished equally quickly, and thereafter he seemed to be struck mute. Yet Leyla's explanation of her linguistic skills turned out to be simple. As a young girl in Turkey she had played with Chechen children in her village and picked up snippets of their language. She guessed Issa was Chechen from the moment she set eyes on him but kept her counsel because with Chechens you never knew.

He was from Chechnya, and his mother was dead and all he had to remember her by was the golden bracelet with the Koran attached to it that she had placed round his wrist before she died. But when she died and how she died, and how old he was when he inherited her bracelet were questions he either failed to understand or didn't wish to.

"Chechens are hated everywhere," Leyla explained to Melik, while Issa kept his head down and went on eating. "But not by us. Do you hear me, Melik?"

"Of course I hear you, Mother."

"Everyone persecutes Chechens except us," she continued. "It is normal all over Russia and the world. Not only Chechens, but Russian Muslims everywhere. Putin persecutes them and Mr. Bush encourages him. As long as Putin calls it his war on terror, he can do with the Chechens whatever he wishes, and nobody will stop him. Is that not so, Issa?"

But Issa's brief moment of pleasure had long passed. The shadows had returned to his wracked face, the spark of suffering to his doe eyes, and a haggard hand closed protectively over the bracelet. Speak, damn you, Melik urged him indignantly but not aloud. If somebody surprises me by talking Turkish at me, I speak Turkish back, it's only polite! So why don't you answer my mother with a few obliging words of Chechen, or are you too busy knocking back her free food?

He had other worries. Carrying out a security inspection of the attic that Issa now treated as his sovereign territory - stealthily, as Issa was in the kitchen, talking as usual to his mother - he had made certain revealing discoveries: hoarded scraps of food as though Issa was planning his escape; a gilt-framed miniature head-and-shoulder photograph of Melik's betrothed sister at eighteen, purloined from his mother's treasured collection of family portraits in the living room; and his father's magnifying glass, lying across a copy of the Hamburg Yellow Pages, open at the section devoted to the city's many banks.

"God gave your sister a tender smile," Leyla pronounced contentedly, in answer to Melik's outraged protests that they were harboring a sexual deviant as well as an illegal. "Her smile will lighten Issa's heart."

(Continues...)


Excerpted from A Most Wanted Man by John le Carre Copyright © 2008 by David Cornwell. Excerpted by permission.
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