A Most Wanted Man

Spies, the "War on Terror," and personal failings converge in John le Carre's latest thriller.

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To gauge how deeply much of the rest of the world abhors America’s current notion of justice, read John le Carré’s new novel about the war on terror. Even though American spies occupy little real estate in A Most Wanted Man, they bind its loose ends in a singularly dark fashion.

Set in Hamburg, where several engineers of 9/11 plotted their attack on the United States, le Carré’s latest book stars Issa Karpov, a Chechen refugee smuggled into town in strikingly murky circumstances.

He is the illegitimate son of Grigory Karpov, a former Soviet soldier who laundered tainted money through Brue Frères, a failing Hamburg bank run by Tommy Brue, a middle-aged man whose marriage is falling apart.

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Tommy’s father, Edward, set up accounts called Lipizzaners, dedicated to laundering money such as Karpov’s.

Annabel Richter, a lawyer who works for Sanctuary North, an agency dedicated to asylum seekers and stateless persons, represents Issa – who arrived with a bag of money around his scrawny neck – in his dealings with Brue.

Also figuring in the plot: British, German, and American spies competing to see who can score the most points against the war on terror.

Le Carré weaves a tale designed to show the ambiguities that make that war less black-and-white than the American version.

The key vehicle of the tension here is Issa, a “pure” Muslim who won’t betray his beliefs for tainted money unless he can be persuaded that he is doing so for the greater good of Islam. As le Carré develops his plot, Issa moderates his views, largely due to the influence of Brue and Annabel.

The state in which Issa – bruised, battered, stringently devout – finds himself shifts, much as the cold war has mutated into the war on terror.

Le Carré insightfully interprets the shifts in global paranoia from the 1980s and ’90s, when Karpov made his money, to today, when the provenance of figures like Issa and the terrorist philosopher Dr. Abdullah, who convinces Issa to free up the Lipizzaner money, make terror so hard to contain.

All the characters are haunted by their pasts and unsure of their legacies, let alone their immediate futures.

Tommy Brue struggles to clear himself of his father’s shadow, the unwillingly sexy Annabel Richter repudiates her patrician past to work for the people, and Issa – a thoroughly convincing depiction of a conflicted, stateless orphan – can’t put together a purposeful, dependable identity. In this world, all is wobbly.

Their interaction takes them out of the routine and into a tense, scary place.

No longer can Brue rely on the status quo. Le Carré ominously describes his dilemma: “All week long he had wrestled with the nigh-incomprehensible complexities of the modern banker’s world, where knowing who you were actually lending money to was about as likely as knowing the man who printed it.”

Money is indeed the root of all evil here. But it also can be the seed of good, as Issa’s morphing suggests.

When Annabel attempts to spirit Issa out of Germany after Issa claims his father’s Lipizzaner money, she puts both of them in harm’s way – and in the sights of Gunther Bachmann and Erna Frey, German spies who want to capture Issa, snare the money, and penetrate the terrorist network.

Brue, meanwhile, must deal with Foreman and Lantern, sinister representatives of British Intelligence also competing for Issa. All the intelligence agencies view Issa as a way to penetrate terror cells in Issa’s native Chechnya. The plot is ingenious, even if the ending seems slightly rushed, the American presence a bit sketchy and schematic.

Le Carré is a fine, rueful writer. Here, Bachmann deals with Frau Ellenberger, the woman in charge of the Lipizzaner accounts.

“When she had opened the front door to him, she had blushed. She was now spectral pale, and beautiful. With her wide, vulnerable eyes, swept-back hair, long neck and young girl’s profile, she was to Bachmann one of those beautiful women who pass unnoticed into middle age, and disappear.”

Ellenberger, mind you, is a minor character. What le Carré does with the major ones – particularly Brue, who may be a kind of self-portrait, and Annabel, the woman with whom Brue falls into a strangely mature love – affirms this veteran author’s grasp of issues that keep the world on edge.

Carlo Wolff is a freelance writer from Cleveland.

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