John le Carre’s: A Most Wanted Man

(New York: Scribner)

John Le Carré has resisted writing about the war on terror, unlike the other mass market thriller novelists, focusing instead on the seldom reported crimes of big business (The Constant Gardener) and intrusive Northern governments (The Mission Song). In A Most Wanted Man he tackles it head on, but from the victim’s perspective with the express objective of exposing the mix of vested interests, nearsightedness and bureaucratic incompetence that go into ‘intelligence’ work, something he knows a thing or two about as a former British spy himself.

The novel, nominally, is about a manhunt for an illegal Russian Muslim immigrant — Issa Karpov — hiding out in Hamburg. He escaped from political prison in Russia through the gangster contacts of his reprehensible illegitimate father, Grigori Borisovich Karpov, a Colonel in the Red Army no less. Hamburg’s the location of Brue Frères, a Scottish Bank run by a miserable sixty year old named Tommy Brue, where the elder Karpov stashed his ill-gotten post-Soviet gains.

In reality the story’s about how human rights and migrant relations in Europe, in the form of the German theatre, have been turned upside down by the neo-conservative war on terror. The British are quite glad to go along with American designs. The Germans are a bit more reluctant given their constitutional safeguards, circa WWII, and have to be hoodwinked into nabbing Issa for the CIA’s secret prisons. They also have to contend with Annabel Richter, Issa’s lawyer, who works for Sanctuary North, a charity specialising in cases like his.

To be honest the novel isn’t that good. Much like his The Night Manager, very little actually happens and with the story ending rather abruptly once the action starts, after 300 or so pages, and with a depressingly tragic anti-climax. Still, it’s a pleasure to read and highly informative, and more entertaining and textually innovative than The Mission Song. And it turns out than German intelligence is even more bureaucratic and less ‘intelligent’ than the American variety!

Literary leftovers?

What interests me about this latest le Carré novel, actually, isn’t so much the politics as the stylistics, how he’s updating the way he handles worn themes. Scots often pop up in his novels as the cooperative Celts who’ve thrown their lot in with the ‘British’ empire, unlike the Irish; hence Brue, despite his quip about Scots feeling closer to France than England. Obstinant cops pop here as in other le Carré novels and Germany is often the hub of European civilization for him. Don’t ask me why! (He’s Zurich-educated and practically a native speaker of German).

Nonetheless, le Carré breaks new literary ground. There is his trademark ‘bad meal’ here, in a passing humorous scene involving Brue — “On Sunday he had played bad golf, lost a thousand euros and afterwards been forced to eat liver dumplings and drink Obstler with an elderly shipping baron” (pp. 117) — only to be followed by a luxurious fish banquet with British clients, who turn out to be intelligence. They’re fattening him up for the slaughter, which is what also happens to Issa when he’s fed ‘exotic’ breakfasts by Annabel, after she’s strong-armed into working with the German authorities.

The Brits want Brue to ‘convince’ Issa to take Karpov’s dirty money — it’s usurious and stolen from Chechens — and hand it over to a Muslim charity run by a reformed extremist, the Egyptian Dr. Abdullah, to prove that this charity is funding international terrorism. But even that doesn’t happen. The whole thing was a ruse by the Americans to kidnap Dr. Abdullah. Issa gets caught in the crossfire.

Note that both Brue and Issa are very tall, but Brue is old and can’t make it with his woman — a Austrian whore than openly cheats on him — while Issa is bruised and battered all over. In other words, ‘crippled giants’, post-empire Britain, and Issa embodying the current status of the Muslims umma (nation). Issa’s also the bastard son of West bloc-East bloc cooperation against Muslims, given that his father was working for the British all along, selling his country’s secrets in exchange for his Brue bank deposits.

There are language games here too, another le Carré tactic, given than Issa means ‘Jesus’ in Arabic; the Abrahamic heritage common between Muslims and Christians. He has nothing against Westerns and wants to enjoy the fruits of democracy and live a useful life there. Unlike the Muslim stereotype he is white, very well read with an aristocratic demeanour, wanting to study everything from medicine to aeronautics. And while he gave himself the name Issa, instead of his Christened name ‘Ivan’. He chose to be a Muslim, but he understands Islam in intellectually productive terms.

Issa can’t tell a Sunni from a Shi’ite mosque and doesn’t even know how to handle the Quran. As he says: “Like Sartre, I have a nostalgia for the future. When I have a future, I shall have no past. I shall have only God and my future” (pp. 95). Likewise the Turkish family — Melik (who is quite tall himself) and his mother Leyla — that take him in and put him in touch with Annabel get their residence revoked, and all they wanted was to be full German citizens. Melik even reformatted his personality, giving up Sunni extremist for rap music and rock bands, while Leyla unstereotypically is blonde.

And how does the West respond to this? Retributive justice, as the Americans in the novel call it, forgetting Gandhi’s quip about an eye-for-eye making the whole world blind!

Future fast-forward

Here Turks and Muslims in general have taken the place of the Jews and the Irish as the loyal-and-yet-castigated minority for le Carré. Something else a bit new here is how case files and surveillance reports create threats out of thin air. Melik and Leyla get ratted out by nosey xenophobic neighbours and money-grubbing Turkish informants, transforming Issa into a seasoned terrorist. (He was thrown into prison originally for being in the wrong place at the wrong time; a Russian oil pipeline going up in flames through negligence, with the neighbouring Chechen’s being blamed and tortured into confessing). In other le Carré novels it’s the paper trail that exposes the double agents in our midst.

After finishing the novel I began to wonder about the various anti-terrorist sting operations in the UK, most notably the disgraceful arrest of Egyptian architect Mamdouh Hamza. He got released in the end with an apology from the judge trying the case!

Le Carré’s also exceptionally good at mapping developments in German personality and politics. I conferred once with an Egyptian friend who speaks German, talking about Marwa Shirbini — the Egyptian girl slaughtered by a Russian-German neo-Nazi — and he told me German’s going through an identity crisis of sorts thanks to the growing need for migrant labour. Not enough red-blooded Germans are being born, which is why Russians are so eager to prove their Germaness through picking on other migrants, more so the non-European, non-Christian variety.

Also, Germans are surprisingly naïve and cooperative people. If you’re nice to them you can easily persuade them it’s their duty to spy on each other, like in the olden Nazi days. Le Carré seems to be sniffing a German retreat to form. Oh dear! But, again, it’s the stylistics that intrigue me.

Most le Carré novels are third person and some are multi-perspective, most notably his masterpiece Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but this novel works differently. It fuses narrative with the intent of his novel, something I haven’t seen in his previous writings. It does dawdle on the sorry details of the pathetic existence of many of the central characters — Brue is divorced, now married to an aging Austrian whore who openly cheats on him, has a rebellious new age daughter, Annabel Richter comes from a wealthy but self-indulgent family too — and does look at their worlds from their perspectives.

But only in snapshots, whisking you along with the narrative, giving you a constant sense that many of the central characters are not in control of what happens to them, that there are hidden hands behind the scenes who are really in charge.

And that’s precisely what does happen, in the end. Annabel tries to prevent the CIA team, to no avail, and is consoled by Tommy Brue who puts his arm around her. She doesn’t notice. The British lion isn’t what it was once and so much for the special relationship. Grim, even for le Carré. But he does it so nicely you can’t help but admire him. That’s hope the Obama era perks him up a bit and forces him to update once last thing about his novellic style — having a happy ending where the good guys do once in a while win!


Please see Justus Leicht, “German Interior Ministry plans to expand the powers of the secret police”, 30 September 2009, HYPERLINK “”.

Please see Justus Leicht, “Arab woman stabbed to death in German courtroom”, 24 July 2009, HYPERLINK “”.

Please see Ibrahim El-Houdaiby, “Western media bias continues in Marwa El-Sherbini’s case”, July 8, 2009, HYPERLINK “”.


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