California Literary Review

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

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November 18th, 2008 at 10:36 am

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A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré
A Most Wanted Man
by John Le Carré
Scribner, 336 pp.
CLR Rating: ★★★☆☆

The Unexpected Ethicist

There’s always a practical problem with assessing John Le Carré’s latest novels, since many of those who buy and read them most eagerly will be the biggest fans of his previous work. The drastic alteration in his style during the last decade means that he probably has a better chance of a fair hearing from a new generation of readers, who first became aware of him from the film of The Constant Gardener, and who don’t yearn for the return of old heroes like George Smiley and Peter Guillam. It would be a mistake, however, for long-term Le Carré enthusiasts to write off the new books as simply not for them.

A Most Wanted Man continues the shift, first apparent in The Constant Gardener and progressing through Mission Song and Absolute Friends, away from the workings of the British Secret Service, and towards those who, for various reasons of conscience, are opposed to it. From detailing the shabby glamour of the Cold War, he has become a furious and self-appointed defender of people who find themselves caught up in the War on Terror, and the Bush/Blair foreign policy in general. Using Bush’s and Blair’s names is itself a departure form his previous work, since politicians in the previous books stayed in the background, vaguely aligned but devoid of personality. Certainly none of them pervaded the novels’ world as Bush and Blair do, their influence showing itself in everything from the geopolitical situation, to the chances of getting a visa, to a character’s macho posturing.

For anyone accustomed to Le Carré’s previous style it’s a shock – much the same effect which must have been experienced by Pinter aficionados not so long ago. When a long-term virtuoso of bleak moral ambiguity turns round and starts yelling that the world’s going to hell in a handcart, it is inevitably going to take his readers some time to readjust. (This is surely even more the case for Le Carré, who has steadily refused to let his books be entered for literary prizes, which has weighted his following towards the “genre” fans, who have often been seen as more conservative and less willing to accept changes in attitude or subject by “their” writers.) It’s impossible to read A Most Wanted Man as if Le Carré had never written Smiley’s People or The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but it should be possible to understand his new work as something other than a falling off from previous standards.

The plot of A Most Wanted Man concerns the arrival of a Chechen fugitive in Hamburg. His appearance in the city draws together a civil rights activist, a family of moderate Muslims in the process of applying for citizenship and an expatriate British banker whose vaults contain a few secrets left over from a previous era. Thrown into each other’s company by their own highly personal and even paradoxical moral drives, this group is opposed by the forces of various states, from the plausible lunching “spooks” of British Intelligence, through the tangled internecine feuds of the German espiocracy, to CIA thugs for whom everything is either “bullshit” or “justice”. The plot scoops up all these characters, and adds a dead Soviet colonel and a Muslim cleric believed to be about five percent evil, setting up a convoluted twine which is suddenly and violently sliced through in the book’s final scene.

Issa, the most wanted man of the title, is almost unequivocally innocent. Though he’s being sought for alleged involvement with Islamic militancy, it is made pretty clear that the charges against him are nonsense, and any lingering moral ambiguity is quickly banished when another character sees the marks of intensive torture on his body. There’s a stark a difference here from Le Carré’s treatment of previous characters such as Bella and Brandt in The Secret Pilgrim, whose guilt or innocence is never established within definite parameters, and it would be easy to dismiss Issa as unwarrantably simple in comparison. However, though innocent, he is far from unproblematic. At times he seems to be auditioning for the role of “holy fool”, with his assertion that he will study to become a doctor when Allah provides sufficient resources, and the paper planes he flies from the top of the wardrobe in the safe house. At other times he feels more like a symbol of others: to Annabel he is every refugee she couldn’t save, to Tommy he is every child wronged by the bank’s collusion with the Soviets. Then again, his simplicity can easily blur into arrogance, as he explains to the young civil rights lawyer that if she improves her character a little, he will marry her, and then she can be a nurse in his hospital, when she is not too pregnant.

Pondering these comments highlights the relationship between Annabel and Issa, which surely stands for something larger than either plot device or character study. There’s a lot of negotiation in their scenes, of trying to find boundaries and parameters within which their dialogue and actions can take place. When they do speak, their conversations are littered with false moves and cross purposes. I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that there is a negotiation going on here between cultures, that their accommodations, agreements and betrayals offer a vision of the cultural politics going on outside them.

The reader’s reaction to Issa is a vital part of the book’s emotional and moral movement. It is easier to identify with Gunter, Tommy or Annabel, since we are allowed closer to their consciousness, but Issa we must react to, whether by sympathy, puzzlement or irritation. The violent and crude final pages of the book force us to scrutinise our feelings over the last three hundred pages – did we will this? Are we guilty of this ending, if only by five percent? The brutal inanity of the dialogue is a warning that in Le Carré’s world, we don’t get to argue over the proportions and scale of what we set in motion.

In fact, Le Carré has always been concerned with the ethical aspect of his works. In the preface to a later edition of The Looking-Glass War, he wrote about rereading The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and finding that his intended jeremiad against the British Intelligence Service had actually rather flattered its subject. (Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes suggested last year that the CIA had often been subjected to similar treatment in fiction, and that decrying an organisation limitless power and matchless subtlety perhaps wasn’t the most damaging line of criticism.) So from his very earliest spy novels, Le Carré was interested in the effect his fictional world might have on readers. It is easy to criticise the new work as “moral” and thus automatically naive, but more difficult to deny that the world has changed, and our visions of it must somehow come to terms with that. A Most Wanted Man is another step away from the great era of the Karla trilogy, but this is not a simpler Le Carré. Just differently devious.

  • christine mcbride

    Le Carre has always, from the early 1970s, been my favourite author.I have read all his books and watched the videos. Whilst living in Lyon, Tunis and Naples, during the 80s, I’d have homesick days, where I’d close the shutters, and watch 8 hours of Tinker tailor, Smiley’s People, or A Perfect Spy, (for me, his masterpiece.)Since then, his heroes appear to have become more ,(difficult to explain,)innocent,quirky, naive, unrealistic, and, sorry, a bit “twee”, Issa being the worst example to date..After all he’s inherited, done, and been through, how can he be so childish, and I’ve not yet got to the paper planes? I’ve read less than half of the book, but I’ve put it down to read the last Kathy Reich’s. (unthinkable in the past.)I’ve got Le Carre novels in English, French, and Italian, I’ve read his newspaper articles, especialy regarding immigrant status, and I agree with him,;however, I cannot come to terms with his new, “silly boys who can also become hard and ruthless protagonists,”,mode of writing, and his, almost, fawningly ,over-consideration for people who are at a disadvantage, or who have no national status.It comes over to me as really pretentious.Anyway, let’s see what happens to the unrealistic Issa, Annabel and Brue, (all very stereotypical)and, whatever happens, I’ll always buy L e Carre.

  • K. Griffiths

    If as his dossier notes, the Issa character has been tortured, and by such experts in the field as the KGB’s gray Russian Federation descendant, it cannot be altogether
    ascertained, I believe, how the character might react or attempt to heal himself. In respect to Ms. McBride, I agree that there have been times Mr. le Carre’s heroes (cf. Tessa Abbott Quayle in THE CONSTANT GARDENER ) and antiheroes (cf. Issa) come off a bit one-dimensional, but in the main I respect the author’s championing of characters who simply by their existence in a certain place and circumstance risk being ground into the pavement by paranoid schizophrenics masquerading as governments, to say nothing of their bully boys. Combine institutionalized fear with a passel of mercenaries who will accept money to kill for you if not die for you (this ‘you’ being an editorial ‘you’), therefore making it almost certain that the truth will be buried by the body count, and then add the victim fleeing from oppression elsewhere who hasn’t necessarily heard the news that the door has all but been
    padlocked against them. A MOST WANTED MAN is regrettably
    one of many all-too-possible outcomes.

  • Sid Mishra

    In “Most Wanted Man” Le Carre paints a world at stark variance with the happenings around. In the book, the headscarf wearing Annabel is treated with near deference by Issa, Malik and Malik’s mom Leyla. In reality, Annabel would have been at serious risk of sexual assault which would have begun with a ritual shout of Allahu Akbar. In the book Issa dreams of converting Annabel to Islam and then marrying her and getting her pregnant for most of the time ( the conversion and pregnancy part sound familiar); in reality Annabel would have been taunted as the “German whore” during he assault. Had Annabel gone over her Stockholm Syndrome and complained to the police; Leyla would have cried hoarse and would have demanded punishment to that “German bitch” whose provocative outfits aroused desire in her oh-so-innocent sons. Abdullah, the imam would have shouted from his mosque loud speakers about the persecution of fellow Mussalman’s in the kafir land of Germany. A sleeper cell would have been activated and Hamburg would have woken up to another bomb blast leaving five or six innocants dead. Somebody like Tommy Brue would have sent a didactic letter to the editor of Der Spigel outlining the need for fellow Germans to be alive to the sensitivities of our fellow Turkish citizens / immigrants. After all, it is a multi-culti Germany.
    I do not know what is going wrong with David (Cornwall).Probably he does not realise that most of the criticisms of Islam today are actually true. The violence associated with Islam draws its legitimacy from the “sacred” books of that religion (the Koran and the Hadith). Political Islam with its ruthless desire for global domination needs no sympathy. Influential writers like Le Carre should know better than to offer literary cover to crazed jihadists who shed innocent blood for no rhyme or reason.

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