Scribner, 2008, 323 pages
A half-starved young Russian man in a long black overcoat is smuggled into Hamburg at dead of night. He has an improbable amount of cash secreted in a purse around his neck. He is a devout Muslim. Or is he? He says his name is Issa.
Annabel, an idealistic young German civil rights lawyer, determines to save Issa from deportation. Soon her client's survival becomes more important to her than her own career -- or safety. In pursuit of Issa's mysterious past, she confronts the incongruous Tommy Brue, the sixty-year-old scion of Brue Frères, a failing British bank based in Hamburg.
Annabel, Issa and Brue form an unlikely alliance -- and a triangle of impossible loves is born. Meanwhile, scenting a sure kill in the "War on Terror," the rival spies of Germany, England and America converge upon the innocents.
Thrilling, compassionate, peopled with characters the reader never wants to let go, A Most Wanted Man is a work of deep humanity and uncommon relevance to our times.
Warning: Unlike most of my reviews, this one has some spoilers.
I have sampled a bit from John Le Carré's earlier and later works; early Le Carré was mostly Cold War spy thrillers, while later Le Carré tends to be brutal deconstructions of Western colonialism. What saves him from being an ideological hack like, say, Michael Walsh, is that first of all, Le Carré's shits can shit better prose than Walsh, and second, Le Carré's contempt is mostly held in check in service to the story, and he paints everyone in the same morally ambiguous shades — even when it's clear where his sympathies ultimately lie, they are not so much political sympathies as humanist ones. States chew people up and swallow them whole, and the fate of an individual against the state is always the same, rendering the question of "sides" moot.
The book takes place in Germany, and has three primary POVs, though Le Carré adds a few more later. The central protagonist is Issa Karpov, the son of a Russian war criminal and his Chechen "war bride." Issa claims to have been tortured in prison; he is now a traumatized refugee in Hamburg, being sheltered by a couple of frightened Turkish immigrants. He seeks help from Annabel Richter, a German civil rights lawyer, who finds herself believing and sympathetic to Issa's story despite herself, and gradually, perhaps, attracted to him as well, despite his strict observance of Islamic customs.
Issa knows little more than the name Tommy Brue, a British banker whose bank was apparently used by Issa's father to stash his ill-gotten fortune. Annabel seeks out Brue to help Issa get established in the West, somehow — Issa says he wants to become a doctor. Brue, also, finds himself wanting to help Issa despite himself, and possibly in large part because of the bright young German lawyer who represents him.
The last thing you expect in a le Carré novel is a love triangle, and there isn't one, really, in this book, but the complicated relationships between the characters hint at it, even though nothing more "romantic" than touching hands ever takes place. Issa, Annabel, and Tommy are an unlikely trio, who find themselves in the net of a whole slew of Western intelligence agencies. The Germans, the British, and the Americans all want a piece of Issa. Tommy and Annabel are not Will Smith fighting the state — they're just ordinary mortals who react the way ordinary people do when scary men with guns drag you into a van. Everyone gets a morality check, a gut check, and questions which side they're on, and which side the so-called innocents are on. Even the cogs in the machinery.
"Rendered?" he repeated stupidly. "What rendered? What justice are you talking about?"
"American justice, asshole! Who'd you think? Justice from the fucking hip, man! No crap justice. That kind of justice. Justice with no fucking lawyers around to pervert the course. Have you never heard of extraordinary rendition? Time you krauts had a word for it."
A Most Wanted Man is, most obviously, a critique of the War On Terror, but I think anyone who reads it as primarily that is missing the point. Issa could be any stateless individual from the wrong place with the wrong background. No one really cares about his religion, only what he knows and who he knows. Le Carré manages to mostly stay off the soapbox, though, and make his point within the story. If there is a flaw in the book besides the author showing his crankiness a little too much, it's that the suspense is never that suspenseful. We know there's going to be no heroic climax, so as the last act begins to play out, the endgame is fairly predictable.
Verdict: There's a bit of polemicism in this book, but everything John le Carré writes is good and complicated and compelling. A Most Wanted Man is only secondarily a spy thriller, as the spies are mostly in the background, with ordinary civilians being the main characters and the War On Terror being the shadow looming over the plot. A good read for anyone who likes grubby, believable, morally compromised protagonists.
Also by John le Carré: My reviews of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and The Mission Song.
My complete list of book reviews.