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Review: John le Carre's 'A Most Wanted Man' takes on the war on terror

What does it say about intelligence gathering that a spy novelist can grasp our new world order faster than the world's most powerful nation? It's a question that will come to mind while reading John le Carre's astounding, nearly perfect new novel, A Most Wanted Man.

For nearly four decades, le Carre was the reader's man on the inside of the Cold War. From The Spy Who Came in From the Cold to The Russia House, he took a conflict so large and unwieldy it needed industrial metaphors and made it human and thrilling and absurd.

Just seven years into the so-called war on terror, le Carre has now done the same for our new age, with a heavy focus on the absurd. A Most Wanted Man is a bold and angry tale about the colossal mistakes and human rights violations that nations — especially the United States — are making by prosecuting a complex conflict with blunt instruments.

Set in Hamburg, the launching point for several 9/11 hijackers, A Most Wanted Man involves, among other things, the plight of an illegal Chechen emigrant, money laundering by mobsters and terrorists, squabbling state intelligence agencies, and the U.S. policy of extraordinary rendition — kidnapping suspects and taking them to foreign countries for interrogation and torture.

This combination would be a mere mishmash of ticker tape if le Carre weren't such a natural storyteller. Like Graham Greene before him, le Carre expertly hoards information, manipulating the reader into the same frenzy of curiosity that drives his characters.

All eyes in this book are on Issa Karpov, a Chechen orphan who shows up in Hamburg on the back of a truck, dirty and damaged, after having escaped a Turkish prison. Shortly after his arrival, Issa begs his way into the home of a family of Turkish Muslims.

They are the first of several benefactors who come to his aid. A German lawyer named Annabel Richter takes up Issa's asylum case for free, hoping she can assuage her guilt over a client she failed.

Guilt also weighs on the mind of 60-year-old Tommy Brue, the scion of a crumbling British bank that, in the waning days of the Soviet empire, took on accounts from Russian mobsters and looters.

When Issa claims, through Annabel, that he is the bastard heir to one such account — his mother was Chechen, his father Russian — Tommy senses a chance to put things right.

Le Carre has always written well about compromised men, but he takes a small misstep here. Tommy has spent his life protecting a false legacy, and his motivation for helping Issa, who has been tortured, needs little explanation. But Tommy's growing infatuation with Annabel arises from nowhere and remains, until the end of the story, entirely unbelievable.

It's a small flaw in an otherwise beautifully paced, awesomely crafted tale. As le Carre weaves Tommy, Issa and Annabel into an improbable alliance, he cuts over to the equally improbable allegiances among German spies, police and British spooks who are tracking the three's actions from an increasingly close distance.

While Tommy and Annabel believe the best about Issa, the espiocracy, as le Carre calls this matrix of law enforcement, assumes the worst. Issa's criminal record from Russia claims he has committed violent acts with Islamists. There can be no other reason for his coming to Hamburg than to wreak more mayhem.

Issa is caught in the middle of a tug-of-war between two sides that feel equally right — and not for the first time. "Issa's problem — if it's his problem," Tommy muses, "is to do with untidy history. . . . It's about some messy loose ends that our fathers left lying about, and which marks us, in some undefined way, jointly culpable."

One could say the same — and le Carre certainly is doing so — about the Cold War. After fighting to a standstill, the United States and the East left the battlefield littered with proxies, with a violent and toxic legacy as their heritage.

This desperately readable novel poses a question that will be essential in the days and years to come: What kind of world is it if we don't allow the descendants of this epic conflict the chance to reject this inheritance and choose peace instead?

John Freeman is completing a book on the tyranny of e-mail.

A Most Wanted Man

By John le Carre

Scribner, 322 pages, $28

Review: John le Carre's 'A Most Wanted Man' takes on the war on terror 11/08/08 [Last modified: Thursday, November 4, 2010 9:04am]

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