A Man Most Wanted
John Le Carre
PP 340 6
One tiring business about John Le Carre's more recent novels like
The Constant Gardener
has been that they read like wonderfully written pamphlets. The sheer joy of entering the morally ambiguous world of the Cold War era - Soviet spooks are the same as American spooks except they drink vodka instead of beer - was drearily overtaken by Le Carre's desire to show that he's made up his mind about what is good and what is bad, who are the perpetrators and who are the victims in the real world.
In other words, the greyness that made George Smiley's terrain so unlike James Bond's kitschy black and white had become self-righteously black and white itself.
In his latest novel,
A Most Wanted Man
, the moralist in Le Carre is evident - right from the sardonic title on the cover But the terrain has changed from the writer raging against Big Corporations and Big Pharma and Big People to something less David-Goliathish: the asymmetrical con- tours of a post-9/11 world. Which is what makes this 're- turn-to-grey' novel, despite its critique against the American invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan, not make an agen- da come in the way of narrative.
The story swirls around a mysterious Chechen, Issa Karpov, whose presence in Ham- burg - a town with strong resonances leading to the September 11, 2001 attack - has something to do with the Brue Freres Bank, once based in Switzerland, then, because of troubles that involved Russian mafia money, moved to this German city.
Joining the dots and trying to unravel why Issa is where he is - after being transported ille- gally from Copenhagen inside a lorry - is the Inspector Rebus- like Gunther Bachmann. Two other characters, coming from opposite ends of the moral spec- trum - 60-year-old scion of the Brue Freres Bank, Tommy Brue, and the idealistic young civil rights lawyer Annabel Richter, team together to play Issa's protector from the authorities.
Le Carre's pace is a brisk jaunt, something that fans will recognise as once leading up to to shadows close to Check- point Charlie and alleys out- side East Berlin bars. There are flashes of Le Carre's 'trenchcoat-over-silk shirt' lan- guage: "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 would have held three ma- gicians." The images that Le Carr& conjures up result in delightfill passages that nail situations to atmospherics.
The first half of
A Most Wanted Man
doesn't even let us know which side the author's on, as everyone seems to be characters in a busy, shad- ows large sometimes imposing canvas. This is terrain that Le Carre briefly touched on (a bit hysterically) at the end of Absolute Friends. But here, he takes on the nervous world of 'Eurabia', a Hamburg that, as one character says is "not some one-horse inland town where foreigners look like Martians.
They're part of our landscape. For centuries millions of Mohammed Atta lookalikes have drunk our beer screwed our hookers and gone back on their ships." This is Le Carre's take on the 'war on terror'. Fortunately, his story of a stranger in a strange land and other people's lives co- alescing around him doesn't get interrupted too much by Hyde Park exhaltations. Le Carre's almost Smiley-ing again.