"A most Wanted Man": When spies collide
Human rights, terrorist fears and conflicting agendas between rival intelligence agencies are all set on a collision course in John le Carré's taut new thriller, "A Most Wanted Man." Oh — and thwarted romance figures in the picture, too.
Seattle Times book critic
"A Most Wanted Man"
by John le Carré
Scribner, 323 pp., $28
On Jan. 15, 2003, in the Times of London, British novelist John le Carré exploded into passionate protest against the then-imminent U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"America has entered one of its periods of historical madness," he wrote.
Five years later, his disdain for American willingness to trample on civil rights in the name of fighting terror is still visceral. But in his new novel, "A Most Wanted Man," his criticisms are couched in a story riddled with ambiguities, as the preservation of human rights comes into direct conflict with anti-terror expediency.
That's one source of tension in the book. Another is le Carré's outrage at the sheer clumsiness of contemporary anti-terrorist spycraft — British, German and, especially, American. "A Most Wanted Man" (in bookstores Tuesday) starts on a small note, and builds and builds, until its canvas encompasses three competing spy agencies — German, British, American — and two mutually incomprehensible cultures.
The setting is Hamburg. The initial players are a young Turkish boxer and his widowed mother who reluctantly take an ailing Russian-Chechen Muslim refugee into their home. Issa, a veteran of Russian and Turkish prisons with the scars and bruises to prove it, poses an unmanageable threat for the mother-son duo who are hoping to get German citizenship. So they steer him toward an organization dedicated to "the protection of stateless and displaced persons." There, his case is taken on by Annabel Richter, a novice lawyer with a sympathy for the underdog.
But Issa has an agenda of his own. In Hamburg, he says, there's a British banker who, implausibly, will solve all his problems — make his illegal arrival legal, even send him to medical school. This is Tommy Brue, aging scion of Brue Frères bank ... and ambivalence personified, in the classic le Carré mold. Tommy is ambivalent about his marriage, his profession and, especially, the legacy his father left him: secret accounts of dirty Russian money that poured into the bank while the Soviet Union disintegrated.
Annabel, after a tragic experience with an earlier client, is determined not to let suspected terrorist Issa disappear back into the Russian prison system. Tommy is beguiled enough by Annabel to be talked (reluctantly) into helping Issa. And Issa is just as determined to marry Annabel and convert her to Islam.
Soon this awkward trio's moves are being traced by an assortment of anti-terrorist units, with maverick Günther Bachmann in the lead but not in full control, especially once the British and Americans enter the picture. As Tommy and Annabel skirt too near the edges of the law in their attempts to save Issa's skin, they find themselves coerced into cooperating with the very intelligence agencies whose attentions they were trying to evade.
"A Most Wanted Man" is taut in its movement, vivid in its rendering of its German setting and probing in its handling of the war-on-terror issues, particularly the ongoing feud within intelligence agencies "between those determined to defend civil rights at all costs, and those determined to curtail them in the name of greater national security." In Annabel, le Carré persuasively creates a character too mindful of the genocidal legalities of Germany's Nazi past to allow the letter of contemporary German law to result in Issa being deported to certain torture and likely death.
There are a few weak links in the book. Issa's Turkish hosts' embrace of him, after their initial doubts, is hard to buy. Tommy's complicitness (at great personal expense) with Annabel's scheme to save Issa also feels out of character. And there's a strange disconnect between the scariness of Issa — who feels capable of acts far more extreme than marrying his lawyer and converting her to Islam — and Annabel's protective stance toward him.
The rivalry between intelligence agencies feels more on target. Le Carré is clearly taking as his model the U.S. push in 2006 for Britain's MI5 to arrest Rashid Rauf, an alleged al-Qaida member the Brits were watching. The Brits' objection: that the arrest might shut down an entire intelligence network beyond retrieval.
As Günther explains: "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."
No matter where you stand on le Carré's political leanings, his critique of how the whole anti-terrorist enterprise is being handled will probably touch a nerve.Michael Upchurch: mupchurch@ seattletimes.com. He has been The Seattle Times book critic since 1998 and has published four novels.
Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company
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