There’s always practical problem with assessing John Le Carré’s latest novels, since many of those who buy and read them most eagerly will be the biggest fans of his previous work. The drastic alteration in his style during the last decade means that he probably has a better chance of a fair hearing from a new generation of readers, who first became aware of him from the film of The Constant Gardener, and who don’t yearn for the return of old heroes like George Smiley and Peter Guillam. It would be a mistake, however, for long-term Le Carré enthusiasts to write off the new books as simply not for them.
A Most Wanted Man continues the shift, first apparent in The Constant Gardener and progressing through Mission Song and Absolute Friends, away from the workings of the British Secret Service, and towards those who, for various reasons of conscience, are opposed to it. From detailing the shabby glamour of the Cold War, he has become a furious and self-appointed defender of people who find themselves caught up in the War on Terror, and the Bush/Blair foreign policy in general. Using Bush’s and Blair’s names is itself a departure form his previous work, since politicians in the previous books stayed in the background, vaguely aligned but devoid of personality. Certainly, none of them leered over the novels’ world as Bush and Blair do, blamed for the state of play, asserted by the books’ endings, and invoked by someone hooking their thumbs into the belt-loops of a pair of jeans.
For anyone accustomed to Le Carré’s previous style it’s a shock – much the same effect which must have been experienced by Pinter aficionados not so long ago. When a long-term virtuoso of bleak moral ambiguity turns round and starts yelling that the world’s going to hell in a handcart, it is inevitably going to take his readers some time to readjust. (This is surely even more the case for Le Carré, who has steadily refused to let his books be entered for literary prizes, which has weighted his following towards the “genre” fans, who have often been seen as more conservative and less willing to accept changes in attitude or subject by “their” writers.) It’s impossible to read A Most Wanted Man as if Le Carré had never written Smiley’s People or The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, but it should be possible to understand his new work as something other than a falling off from previous standards.
The plot of A Most Wanted Man concerns the arrival of a Chechen fugitive in Hamburg. His appearance in the city draws together a civil rights activist, a family of moderate Muslims in the process of applying for citizenship and an expatriate British banker whose vaults contain the odd skeleton inherited from his father. Thrown into each other’s company by their own highly personal and even paradoxical moral drives, this group are opposed by the forces of various states, from the plausible lunching “spooks” of British Intelligence, through the tangled internecine feuds of the German espiocracy, to CIA thugs whose world is composed of “bullshit” and “justice”. The plot scoops up all these characters, and adds a dead Soviet colonel and a Muslim cleric believed to be about five percent evil, setting up a convoluted twine
Issa, the most wanted man of the title, is almost unequivocally innocent. Though he’s being sought for alleged involvement with Islamic militancy, it is made pretty clear that the charges against him are nonsense, and any lingering moral ambiguity is quickly banished when another character sees the marks of intensive torture on his body. There’s a stark a difference here from Le Carré’s treatment of previous characters such as Bella and Brandt in The Secret Pilgrim, whose guilt or innocence is never established within definite parameters, and it would be easy to dismiss Issa as unwarrantably simple in comparison. However, though innocent, he is far from unproblematic. At times he seems to be auditioning for the role of “holy fool”, with his assertion that he will study to become a doctor when Allah provides sufficient resources, and the paper planes he flies from the top of the wardrobe in the safe house. At other times he feels more like a symbol of others: to Annabel he is every refugee she couldn’t save, to Tommy he is every child wronged by the bank’s collusion with the Soviets. Then again, his simplicity can easily blur into arrogance, as he explains to the young civil rights lawyer that if she improves her character a little, he will marry her, and then when she can be a nurse in his hospital, when she is not too pregnant.
Pondering these comments highlights the relationship between Annabel and Issa, which surely stands for something larger than either plot device or character study. There’s a lot of negotiation in their scenes, of trying to find boundaries and parameters within which their dialogue and actions can take place. When they do speak, their conversations are littered with false moves and cross purposes. I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that there is a negotiation going here between cultures, that their accommodations, agreements and betrayals offer a vision of the cultural politics going on outside them.
The reader’s reaction to Issa is a vital part of the book’s emotional and moral movement. It is easier to identify with Gunter, Tommy or Annabel, since we are allowed closer to their consciousness, but Issa we must react to, whether by sympathy, puzzlement or irritation. The violent and crude final pages of the book force us to scrutinise our feelings over the last three hundred pages – did we will this? Are we guilty of this ending, if only by five percent? The brutal inanity of the dialogue is a warning that in Le Carré’s world, we don’t get to argue over the proportions and scale of what we set in motion.
In fact, Le Carré has always been concerned with the ethical aspect of his works. In the preface to a later edition of The Looking-Glass War, he wrote about rereading The Spy Who Came In From The Cold and finding that his intended jeremiad against the British Intelligence Service had actually rather flattered its subject. (Tim Weiner’s Legacy of Ashes suggested last year that the CIA had often been subjected to similar treatment in fiction, and that decrying an organisation limitless power and matchless subtlety perhaps wasn’t the most damaging line of criticism.) So from his very earliest spy novels, Le Carré was interested in the effect his fictional world might have on readers. It is easy to criticise the new work as “moral” and thus automatically naive, but more difficult to deny that the world has changed, and our visions of it must somehow come to terms with that. A Most Wanted Man is another step away from the great era of the Karla trilogy, but this is not a simpler Le Carré. Just differently devious.
This article first appeared in California Literary Review, November 2008.