Thursday, January 15, 2009

A Most Wanted Man

John Le Carre's latest book "A Most Wanted Man" takes us to Hamburg, where Le Carre served as a political consul during his days working for the British Foreign Office.

The book's "Wanted Man" is Issa Karpov, the illegitimate son of a Russian army officer and a Chechen girl, who is wanted by German, British and American intelligence agencies. Issa drags a young female German lawyer and an aging British private banker (and son of an ex-MI6 associate) whose life has entered a state of decline into his orbit and thereby into the sights of those pursuing him.

As I was nearing the half way point of the book I had begun to think that the story was going to be a repeat of his other recent book set in Germany that strongly objected to the neoconservatives and their "war on terror", Absolute Friends, but things quickly veered off in a new direction.

Le Carre stories don't, in my experience, tend to have happy endings (as The Independent notes, he is an author of tragedies who has been mistaken for a thriller writer) but this one was less bleak than "Absolute Friends" and there was a hint of redemption for some of the characters when the story reached its end.

Its not a perfect book but I enjoyed it and it recaptures some of the mood and complexity of Le Carre's cold war stories.

By and large the book got good reviews elsewhere.

The Guardian said "John le Carré keeps his eyes on the spies with this riveting tale of an alleged terrorist".

The New York Times - "a few weeks after the cold war sat up in its coffin and smiled, John le Carré publishes one of the best novels he’s ever written. Maybe the best, it’s possible."

The Independent - "A Most Wanted Man is le Carré's 21st book, and another winner. Why we think of this man as a popular novelist, still less a thriller writer, is beyond me: he's a subversive tragedian, selling us the things we'd least like to hear about the custodians of our liberty and only vaguely disguising them as entertainment.".

The Telegraph - "It is around a disaffected Muslim, attending one of [Hamburg's] mosques, then, that le Carré pivots his complicated, satisfying plot.".

The Times seems to have taken an offensive tack against anyone who dares to criticise the war on terror as a sham (unsurprisingly, given the Murdoch press' leading role in promulgating this propaganda exercise to support a grab for Iraq's oil), prompting le Carre to write this letter to the editor :

In your presentation of my interview with Rod Liddle dated 14th September 2008, you misrepresent me on two fronts:

The first, that as a British Intelligence officer I nearly defected to the Russians; and the second, that my view of the United States places me in the same coterie as Harold Pinter and others.

During the six hours he spent in my house in Cornwall, Mr Liddle made no visible use of a tape recorder, preferring, he assured me, to take written notes. He must be forgiven therefore if, while he too was sipping post-prandial Calvados in the evening darkness he describes, he failed to encompass or indeed record the general point I was making about the temptations of defection.

Lord Annan, I ventured in our conversation, had declared that four years of Intelligence work were as much as any sane man could stand. I painted for Mr Liddle the plight of professional eavesdroppers who identify so closely with the people they are listening to that they start to share their lives.

It was in this context that I made the point that, in common with other Intelligence officers who lived at close quarters with their adversaries, I had from time to time placed myself intellectually in the shoes of those on one side of the Curtain who took the short walk to the other; and that rationally and imaginatively I had understood the magnetic pull of such a step, and empathised with it.

This is scarcely a new theme in my writing, as I was at pains to explain to Mr Liddle when he returned to the charge over the telephone a couple of days later. It is a theme I have explored in several novels over the years, most notably in A PERFECT SPY. Only when traduced by your editors does it acquire such disproportionate and damaging significance.

Mr Liddle found the three minor American characters in my new novel to be lacking in depth, and I agreed with him. I explained that, since they were all three practitioners of the CIA's 'extraordinary rendition' programme that has so far consigned some 27,000 souls, many innocent of any crime and all lacking legal representation, to black prisons round the world, I had little appetite for exploring their moral ambiguities. I preferred to let them indulge their well-known appetite for shock and awe.

None of which means that I subscribe to Harold Pinter's drastic generalisations on America. It means that, like countless Europeans and countless more Americans, I believe that in the last eight years the United States has taken a series of disastrous turnings that will haunt us all for generations.

If Mr Liddle had chosen to enquire after my larger feelings towards the United States, which he did not, I would have described myself as a disappointed admirer rather than a committed hater.

I write this in sorrow rather than anger. Mr Liddle says so many kind things about my work. He is an erudite and perceptive conversation partner. We passed a convivial evening together and I would not be taking either him or his editors to task, were not the distortions they have imposed on my words so potentially damaging to my reputation, and to the opinion of my readers inside and outside America.