Sunday, 14 December 2008

Book Review: A Most Wanted Man, by John Le Carre (2008)

Issa, a troubled, illegal and mysteriously well-financed immigrant, smuggles his way to Hamburg in Germany from Russia via Turkey, Sweden, and Denmark. He claims to be a Chechen Muslim who wants to become a doctor. He also may have a claim for untold millions of dollars, a dirty fortune held in Tommy Brue`s private investment bank.

Annabel Richter is the idealistic young German non-profit lawyer that Issa turns to for help to get settled in Germany. The intelligence services of Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States close-in and inharmoniously attempt to understand the emerging threat. German agent Gunther Bachmann leads these efforts at street level, but he is all too aware that inter-agency conflicts several levels above him may side-swipe his efforts at any instant.

Issa, Richter, Brue and Bachmann form the four points of the square that is the foundation of John Le Carrè`s latest spy story, set in the shadowy world of suspicion, the threat of Islamist terror, competing spy agencies, money laundering, and donations to so-called charities.

In the world that Le Carre creates, there are no good people or bad people, just very troubled people, fighting demons both internal and external. None of the characters are in control of their destiny, much as they would like to believe that they can be. Le Carre's genius is in his drawing of rich textures that bring out fully-dimensioned, emotional characters that become brilliantly familiar to the reader. For example, we don't just get to know Annabel Richter; we get to know her mother, her sister, her brother, and her co-workers, in short passages that colour the background and create a multi-faceted person.

Describing a meeting of German intelligence agents, Le Carre opens a paragraph with Bachmann had passed through his anger threshold and entered a state of operational calm. In simple, stunning sentences like this, written with a fluidity that can only emanate from a master storyteller, Le Carre demonstrates how an author becomes one with his characters and is able to concisely convey complex emotional transformations.

At the same time, the world of grey that Le Carre builds, for all its details, remains full of grey, as much of Issa`s background story and motivation remains shrouded in the fog that is typical of intelligence work. Le Carre will bring the characters that his readers may meet at a dinner party to life. Events that transpire in the shadows of torture cells, war zones, and in the presence of Russian mafia bosses are only hinted at with agonizingly vague gestures.

A Most Wanted Man is a dark, engrossing, and memorable novel that brilliantly reflects today's troubled world.

322 pages.

Published in hardcover by Scribner.

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