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Book Review: A Man Most Wanted By John Le Carre

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Guest workers. In Germany that's what they call any foreigner who lives and works in the country and not gone through the tortuous process of obtaining citizenship. In reality it applies mainly to the thousands upon thousands of Turkish nationals who reside within borders of the country doing those jobs all Western countries assign their poor immigrant populations. In the fifty-odd years of the post-World War II era, during the rebuilding, the economic miracle, and finally reunification when the Wall came down, they were an accepted part of life in Germany.

However, as of September 12th, 2001, they all became potential terrorists, or at the least threats to security. Families who had lived in Germany for three generations were just as suspect as the new arrivals off the plane from Istanbul. It suddenly became important which Mosque you attended, if you were a man whether you shaved or not, or as a woman if you wore the head scarf or not. After years of looking over the Wall waiting to catch Russian spies, German intelligence now refocused on the enemy within. How many of these once innocent Muslim youth societies were now secretly preparing their young members as terrorists to be launched against the West.

John Le Carre.jpgOf course Germany is also sensitive to criticism about impinging on the human rights of any minority as a result of the Holocaust. However, that doesn't prevent families who have been living and working in Germany for two generations coming under suspicion and being subject to threats and coercion. If you go to your daughter's wedding in Istanbul maybe we won't let you back in if you don't co-operate, or maybe we will whisper a word in someone's ear in Turkish intelligence so you will cool your heels in prison for suspected acts of terrorism.

Welcome to Germany in the twenty-first century as depicted by John Le Carre in A Most Wanted Man, being released on October 2, 2008 by Penguin Canada. It's a country as dominated by paranoia, rumour, and heresy as the United States, at least among those who claim responsibility for protecting its citizens from the dangers of a big bad world. When it was revealed that three of those involved with the September 11th attacks were from Hamburg, their focus turned on the enemy within.

In the good old days of intelligence, at least according to Gunther Bachmann, head of the Foreign Acquisition Unit of the Hamburg branch of the Office for the Protection of the Constitution, or the domestic intelligence unit, one used to have agents in the field. Ideally your agents were individuals from the other side who you had, by what ever means at your disposal, turned to spy on themselves. However, when America entered the game with its War On Terror, all bets were off and the focus was on results, not information. Eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth no matter what the cost to future investment in preventing such incidents from occurring.

So when the stateless and homeless Russian-speaking Chechnyan named Issa Karpov appears on the streets of Hamburg, Bachmann knows that what he sees as an opportunity for a double agent, others will see as a chance for an arrest to make it look like they are doing something. If he wants to win his way he must ensure that Issa is pushed in the right direction, and for that Gunther needs the help of the two people who will be least inclined to do anything of the sort.

Annabelle Richter is a young lawyer working for an agency that does its best to prevent people from being deported back to whatever prison cell they escaped from before landing in Germany as refugees. It's her job to try and keep Issa from being thrown on the first plane to Russia, as he has definitely entered the country illegally. Not even the most liberal of judges thinks well of being smuggled into Hamburg via a cargo container on a freighter originally bound for Copenhagen, and bribing a truck driver with Russian Mafia money to finish your journey.

It's the Mafia money that brings Bachmann's third piece onto the board, Tommy Brue, proprietor of a privately owned British family bank headquartered in Hamburg, Brue Freres. It turns out that Tommy's esteemed papa, at the behest of British intelligence back in the waning days of the Cold War, had established private accounts for high ranking Russian officers to launder their ill gotten gains from running heroin, girls, and whatever. So little Issa, devout Muslim, is the bastard child and only heir of one Colonel Karpov who had settled sizeable sums of money in Tommy's bank in the good old days, and has now come to claim his inheritance – sort of.

Being a good Muslim, Issa wants nothing to do with the wages of sin that his depraved father earned. He is willing to concede that if he wants to fulfill his desire of becoming a doctor he needs to stay in Germany and have the wherewithal to attend medical school. The rest of the money though must be donated to Muslim charities devoted to doing good works with special attention given to his half brothers and sisters in Chechnya. Gunther has just the person in mind to be the one to be the recipient of Issa's largess, and if all goes according to plan, the good and moderate Muslim, Dr. Abdullah, will distribute the money. Ninety-five percent will go to legitimate charities, but the five per cent that ends up in terrorist hands will provide the leverage he requires to turn Abdullah into the double agent who will provide Germany with advance warning of any and all future plots.

For those not used to a John Le Carre novel it may come as something of a shock to read an espionage novel flagrantly critical of intelligence services the world over. Although we find ourselves cheering on Gunther Bachmann as he struggles to sell his plan to his bosses and out-manoeuvre not only the American and British intelligence services that want a piece of the action, but rival departments in Germany's intelligence service, it's only because he's the lesser of all the evils involved. Issa's a terrorist, says one; he's a hapless fool, replies Gunther. Lock him and Dr. Abdullah up under the lights and see what happens, say the police; run Abdullah as a double agent and we will have all the answers you want and more, says Gunther.

But Gunther has no qualms about using Tommy and Annabelle to push Issa, and promises them anything they want even if he doubts that his promises are any good. If there are any innocents in this book, Tommy and Annabelle are them, but they are both turned into double agents against themselves and must figure out how to ensure they don't betray Issa into the bargain. As they deal with the morality of their choices, and their limited options, they are forced to look deeper into themselves than ever before in their lifetimes. Le Carre has done his usual masterful job of creating characters who have spent their lives hiding behind carefully constructed public faces and are finally forced to deal with the cracking of their facades.

Le Carre carefully weaves the various strands of the story into a pattern that gradually reveals itself over the course of the book. While the conclusion is painfully obvious to all — except maybe Tommy and Annabelle who cling to the hope of the honest that others will stand by their words — the build-up to the inevitable is handled masterfully. Nobody can write the doublespeak, triple-speak, of the intelligence community like Le Carre, and A Most Wanted Man is another example of the master at work. We gasp in appalled disbelief as we hear scenes we've already witnessed mis-interpreted in order to suit the needs of an observer's agenda. People's lives are destroyed without their knowledge by the words of paid informants who repeat third-hand rumours as facts.

It's not the guilty who suffer in this brave new world of international co-operation in the war on terror, but those who have done nothing wrong. Le Carre makes our worst fears about the excesses of the intelligence community come to life without hyperbole or melodrama. There is something quite terrifying in how everything happens in so matter a fact a manner, and in the way that everyone takes it for granted that their actions are absolutely necessary, and that there is no other way to behave. The Turkish community in Germany may be one of the most established Islamic communities in Europe, but that doesn't prevent them from becoming guilty until proven innocent.

A Man Most Wanted goes on sale October 2nd, 2008 and can be purchased either directly from Penguin Canada or an online retailer like Amazon.ca.

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About Richard Marcus

Richard Marcus is the author of two books commissioned by Ulysses Press, "What Will Happen In Eragon IV?" (2009) and "The Unofficial Heroes Of Olympus Companion". Aside from Blogcritics his work has appeared around the world in publications like the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine and the multilingual web site Qantara.de. He has been writing for Blogcritics.org since 2005 and has published around 1900 articles at the site.
  • Fred

    As a long-time fan of Le Carré, “A Most Wanted Man” was a looked-forward to reading. In general it lived up to expectation, although Le Carré’s cynicism is a little too obvious, and his “Intelligence” characters largely caricatures. One annoyance of the edition I read was that it was published in the US (a large print edition by Center Point) and translated, for some odd reason, into US English. No big deal, except that one of the British intelligence operatives has a business card with US spellings (an unlikely scenario from the very British Le Carré ).