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Originally published Thursday, October 2, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Author John le Carré captures a world changed by Sept. 11

John le Carré talks about how the war on terror shaped his new book, "A Most Wanted Man."

The Associated Press

LONDON — The spying game is not what it used to be.

That is a matter of regret for John le Carré, eminent novelist and former spy, who has done more than almost any other writer to forge our idea of how the game is played. Ian Fleming's action-hero James Bond may be more famous, but le Carré's universe has the ring of truth. His secret agents exist in a world of stalemate, moral compromise, ambiguity and betrayal.

That's again the terrain of his 21st novel, "A Most Wanted Man," but in some ways the landscape has changed. The end of the Cold War changed things. The Sept. 11 attacks changed them again, revealing a frightening new menace and adding a glossary of chilling new terms — "war on terror," "extraordinary rendition" — to our common language.

"I have no nostalgia for the Cold War," says le Carré, who worked for British intelligence in Germany in the 1960s, when tensions with the Soviet Union were at their chilliest. "I think I have nostalgia for the hope that existed during the Cold War that when it ended we would redesign the world. We never did that. We missed the whole trick."

"A Most Wanted Man," which comes out Tuesday, is set firmly in our jittery post-9/11 world. Le Carré locates the action in Hamburg, the German port city where several of the 9/11 hijackers planned their attacks. Its central character is Issa, an enigmatic half-Chechen refugee who appears in Hamburg sporting a long black coat, muddy motives and a claim to a mysterious fortune.

To Annabel Richter, an idealistic young human-rights lawyer who takes up his case, Issa is a challenge. To the German, British and American spies who home in on him, he is a possible asset and a potential threat.

Capturing a moment

Le Carré is fascinated by the way globalization and immigration have brought disparate peoples closer together, without bridging the gaps in culture, wealth and experience that divide them. Despite attempts at mutual understanding, the novel's characters are on a collision course.

"We know so little, we understand so little, about Islam — the cultural differences that separate us, the thought processes that separate us," says the writer, whose real name is David Cornwell. "It's very difficult to find a common ground. I'm not offering solutions here, but trying to paint a moment in our time. I'm very hung up on trying to catch the moment of where we are and trying to make a neat little story that reflects our feelings."

Since his breakthrough book, "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," in 1963, le Carré has become one of Britain's most successful writers. Many of his books — most recently "The Constant Gardener" — have been turned into films. His books may be categorized as thrillers, but they are reviewed as serious novels.

Nan Graham, editor-in-chief at le Carré's U.S. publisher, Scribner, says he transcends genres. "As a storyteller, he's simply one of the best we have," she said.

She said le Carré "has always put his characters in a moral maze. And I think this book, which is partly about the war on terror, makes it clear that the war on terror is fraught with as much moral ambiguity as the Cold War."

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Questions democracy

Le Carré lives with his wife Jane in a house high above the rugged coast of southwest England, and in a large home in one of London's leafiest nooks. Sitting amid the book-lined walls and solid wooden furniture of his London house, he looks the picture of middle-class contentment, a white-haired 76-year-old wearing a hearing aid and a gray sleeveless sweater.

But he is not mellowing into old age. His conversation, like his writing, fizzes with a moral outrage that is at odds with his kindly, avuncular manner.

The enemy in his new book is not just terrorism, but also the treachery and betrayal of supposed allies. Le Carré's German spies are caught between their own goals and the demands of impatient American colleagues, depicted as willing to cut a few ethical corners in the cause of neutralizing a perceived threat.

Le Carré can see the criticism coming.

"I don't expect a terribly warm reception in the United States," he says. "I'm not anti-American. But I'm certainly anti the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld disaster of the last eight years." Like many liberal Europeans, he feels that the United States has been "hijacked."

America has claimed the right "to seize any citizen of any country whom it deems offensive to it," he says. "America has licensed torture. In the end, I ask the same question that I've been asking through a whole lot of books: How much of this stuff can we do to ourselves in protection of our democracy and remain a democracy worth protecting?"

Some personal links

The book has more personal concerns. The three central characters — Issa, Annabel and Tommy Brue, a careworn British banker — have fathers who cast long shadows their offspring struggle to shake off.

"All of us are molded much more than we ever want to let on by our parental origins and the way we are brought up and the angers of our childhood," says le Carré.

The intersection of psychology and ideology, politics and the personal, is prime le Carré territory.

His own father, a charming con man and fraudster, helped propel him into storytelling and spying, two creative forms of deception. Le Carré drew on that background for his most autobiographical novel, "A Perfect Spy," which charts a boy's induction into a life of personal and professional deceit.

Le Carré has been a full-time writer for more than four decades, and kept silent for years about his time as a spy. These days he's more willing to discuss it, although he says he never became more than a "very lowly" operative. His career in espionage was ended by the British double agent Kim Philby, who exposed him and dozens of other British agents to the Soviets.

If the author has a surrogate in the novel, it's Günther Bachmann, a mid-ranking German intelligence official who upholds the values worth preserving.

"I'm with Bachmann, instinctively," le Carré says. He stands for all the "really good field men and field women" in spy agencies everywhere.

"They're not interventionists, they're not judgmental. But they have a knack for it — they can listen at the bazaars, they know how to befriend people, how to manipulate them. How to do a deal with them and stick to the deal.

"Intelligence work at its best is academic, it's human, it's earthy and it's vocational. It's not about how to break somebody's neck on a dark night."

Hope and honor

Le Carré comes from a generation of spies that was shocked by the way intelligence was manipulated to make the case for war in Iraq, through the British government's infamous "dodgy dossier" and other exaggerated claims about Saddam Hussein's alleged weapons of mass destruction.

"In my day — in the spook world — we saw ourselves almost as people with a priestly calling to tell the truth," he said. "We didn't shape it or mold it. We were there, we thought, to speak truth to power. I never had any sense of the stories being twisted to suit the political requirements."

Idealism in a spy? Perhaps it's less unlikely than it sounds. Like his books, le Carré is a mix of unblinking realism and hopeful humanism. His characters struggle valiantly to do the right thing. They usually fail.

"I think there is a great deal of human affection in this book," he says. "But I don't think there's much optimism."

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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