Le Carré’s ‘Most Wanted Man’ reinforces the unbearable hardness of being

December 11, 2012

By Matthew E. Milliken
Dec. 11, 2012

Le Carré’s 20th book, A Most Wanted Man, came out in 2008. I have had it for years. But I put it down at least once, finding myself unable to get past the opening pages.

Some days ago, I embarked anew upon this book, which I understand is being made into a movie. And it wasn’t long before I fell in love with A Most Wanted Man.

That’s what I wrote the other week in this post about three books that I started reading but could not bear to finish. (Not so incidentally: Le Carré’s first name is John. It’s a pen name, as you’ll soon see.)

Well, the other day, I finished it. First, two more excerpts from the post; then, additional impressions based on my full reading of the novel. 

Le Carré (real name is David Cornwell) is a British author, born in 1931, who worked during his 20s and part of his 30s as a teacher and as a diplomat with ties to British intelligence. He is probably best known for his novel Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, about the hunt for a traitor at the highest levels of the British espiocracy. It was adapted as a television miniseries starring Alec Guinness in 1989 and as a feature film starring Gary Oldman in 2011. Le Carré’s had many other best-selling novels, several of which have also been made into movies. ….


Le Carré, long an aficionado of Germany, sets [A Most Wanted Man] in the (evidently cosmopolitan) North German city of Hamburg. There is a mysterious fugitive named Issa and the people caught in his orbit: Annabel Richter, Issa’s do-good lawyer, who works for a refugee aid society; Tommy Brue, the banker, whose dustiest, darkest files may contain the unlikely key to Issa’s salvation; and Günther Bachmann, the spy, whose discovery of Issa may provide the key to…

Actually, it’s not obvious what Bachmann wants or hopes to get, or what he’ll settle for once other intelligence officials get wind of Issa. And for long stretches, it’s not clear what Issa really wants; nor what motivates Richter; nor what path Brue hopes to navigate to achieve his personal or professional goals.

What gradually emerges is that Bachmann, a consummate professional, may not be telling the truth — or at least the entire truth — to the other characters. And it also becomes clear that Bachmann is losing control over events as things come to a head. Which is exactly what many of the characters begin to sense as they approach a moment that could change, or end, their lives.

As I wrote in the aforementioned (and afore-quoted) post, many of le Carré’s books have endings that are, if not tragic, then bittersweet — heavy on the bitter, light on the sweet. Without delving too deeply into particulars, I’ll say that the conclusion to A Most Wanted Man could be fitted into either of those categories. My personal inclination is to go with the latter, but a solid argument could certainly be made for the former classification.

Le Carré is a beautiful writer, to my mind. A brilliant student of both psychology and bureaucracy, he constructs intricate plots that his typically conflicted characters variously execute or throw off course. Much of the challenge, and the reward, of reading le Carré is that so often the things he leaves unsaid carry tremendous weight.

In other words, there’s a great deal of ambiguity in le Carré’s work, which is true of A Most Wanted Man as well.

Fittingly, its conclusion is open to interpretation by the reader as well as the different characters. For at least two key players, it’s a clear disaster. For others, it’s harder to determine. The book’s resolution is doubtless a low moment for some of the characters. But is it one that will break them, or will they be able to recover?

To repeat myself, it’s open to interpretation.

What should be clear is that I’m a big fan of le Carré and that I also liked A Most Wanted Man a great deal, even though I was initially put off by its opening. I hate to apply a snooty or pretentious label such as “literary” to le Carré, but, well, I believe many of his novels are books that the general reader can enjoy — as much as or perhaps even more so than a typical espionage or thriller enthusiast.

What’s more, this book seems to me to be very much on the cutting edge of contemporary espionage, even two years after its publication. Issa affects to be a Muslim of Chechen origin, and he eventually links up with several other Muslims.

As Bachmann lectures near the book’s beginning:

“Hamburg is a guilty city,” he announced quietly. “Consciously, unconsciously. Maybe Hamburg even pulled those hijackers. Did they pick us? Or did we pick them? What signals does Hamburg send out to your average Islamist anti-Zionist terrorist bent on fucking up the Western world? Centuries of anti-Semitism? Hamburg has them. Concentration camps just up the road? Hamburg had them. All right, I’ll grant you: Hitler wasn’t born in Blankenese. But don’t think he couldn’t have been. The Baader-Meinhof gang? Ulrike Meinhof, born not far from here, was Hamburg’s proud adopted daughter. She even got herself Arab trained. Partied with their crazies and went hijacking with them. Maybe Ulrike was some kind of signal. Too many Arabs love Germans for the wrong reasons. Maybe our hijackers did. We never asked them. And now we never shall.”

He let the silence last awhile, then seemed to take heart.

“And then there’s the good news about Hamburg,” he resumed cheerfully. “We’re sea people. We’re a world-wise, liberal-left, wide-open city-state. We’re world-class traders with a world-class port and a world-class nose for profit. Our foreigners aren’t strangers to us. We’re not some one-horse inland town where foreigners look like Martians. They’re part of our landscape. For centuries, millions of Mohammed Atta lookalikes have drunk our beer, screwed our hookers and gone back on their ships. And we haven’t said hello and good-bye to them, or asked them what they’re doing here, because we take them for granted. We’re Germany, but we’re aside from Germany. We’re better than Germany. We’re Hamburg, but we’re also New York. Okay, we don’t have Twin Towers. But then neither does New York anymore. But we’re attractive. We smell right to the wrong people.”

I feel as though le Carré has always had a lot to teach me as a reader. He’s got a lot to offer many others, too.

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