Sep 18 2017

A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carré

It’s a John Le Carré book, so you know that someone is going to get screwed in the end. In his Cold War books, which were on the whole more subtle in their plotting if not as deft in their characterization, it wasn’t always possible to tell who was doing just what to whom, because the characters themselves did not know for sure, and the looking-glass effect was one of his points about the superpower confrontation. I remember that Le Carré endings would unfold in my mind for hours, or sometimes days, as I turned events around and around, each flip revealing more possible layers of deception and intent. A Most Wanted Man is not like that.

The ending, when it comes, is hard and brutal, upending the carefully balanced forces Le Carré has spent the book detailing. It’s his comment on how the shadowy worlds of espionage, private banking, and the fight against Islamist-inspired terrorism worked in the middle part of this century’s first decade, when he was writing this book. There are subtle planners, updated versions of his Cold War subjects who were often skilled improvisers (both bankers and spies in this book observe that one of the few true constants of dealing with clients is the cock-up), and then there are people who don’t care about any of that and just want to blow things up. That last group, when they come from the US government, have the power to do nearly anything, though they seem to have neither the will nor the wit to do anything except smash and grab.

Parts of this book — most of its scenes, in fact — are very good indeed. His portrait of the banker Tommy Brue is idealized but melancholy, a representative (he thinks) of a world that has passed, enjoying one last tilt to redeem both his personal choices and the sins of his father. On the other hand, he falls for the much younger woman (though she is no naif, at 35) who starts as an adversary. On the other other hand, Brue the character knows that his interest is terribly cliché. On the other other other, Le Carré still lets it happen in his book. Brue also stands in for waning British power in a world order that has long since passed the main action to other players. The Brits are still subtler and cleverer, and willing to do more or less the right thing. Le Carré hasn’t changed in that regard.

Annabel Richter rings true as a committed German lawyer who acts as an advocate for people in irregular immigration situations in Germany. I’ve met her type in various guises during the nearly two decades I have lived in Germany, and Le Carré sketches this character very well, complete with the personal dynamics within the non-profit where she works, and the mix of competitiveness with a complex relationship toward the privilege of her family background. She’s also a step ahead of Brue in recognizing that he will fall for her, and not above using that for her goals.

As Le Carré depicts the German organizations that take an interest in one of Richter’s clients, none of them are very good at what they do. They are torn by internal ambitions, altogether too scared of repeating the mistakes of Germany’s totalitarian past, and run by committees. It’s accurate as far as it goes, but I think the view Le Carré shows underestimates the organizations’ strengths and effectiveness. He’s not as bad as a Brexiteer who can’t believe the German auto industry won’t upend a broad-based consensus and deliver concessions to London from the EU; he isn’t quite as far gone as someone who can’t conceive that clever wordplay is not as important in German policymaking as it is in Westminster; but he is on the spectrum of both. The Brits have the lineage and the tradition and the brains, and yet it’s the Germans who are running the show, how can that be? (The only thing worse, as seen here, is when the Americans show up.)

The third key figure is a mysterious young man who has turned up in Hamburg, where he definitely should not be, with resources that he definitely should not have. Issa is initially a bit of a cipher; readers see him bounced around, more an object than a subject, and a secretive one at that. Le Carré fills in his story skillfully, revealing just enough for readers to reconsider previous developments in a new light. His actions, infuriating as they are to other characters, fit well with descriptions I have read about people who have gone through similar experiences. I’m fortunate not to have met any myself.

With these pieces on the board, the game goes back and forth, observed by several German organizations, British intelligence, and, inevitably, the Americans. One of the best touches, I thought, was the uncertainty about who is the title character. Some people come into their prime, some reveal that they are out of their depth, and Le Carré invites readers to sympathize with almost all of them. It’s a tense ride, as interests clash, stakes rise, and people insist on being people rather than just filling roles. Le Carré’s mastery shows in how he drew me in to care about nearly all of them. Which is why I was put off more than usually so by the ending. The lack of satisfaction is exactly the author’s point, but knowing that didn’t help. It isn’t great tragedy that arises from the inherent flaws of the characters; it’s characters getting knocked over by something that doesn’t even care who they are. That’s apparently how Le Carré saw the era he was writing about, and having lived through that period it’s hard to disagree completely, but the ending irritated me anyway.

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