A Most Wanted Man by John Le Carre
John Le Carre hates the “war on terror” and sympathizes with its victims. But he has let his feelings get the better of his art in A Most Wanted Man, for sympathy alone cannot animate the title character. Issa Karpov doesn’t come to life like George Smiley.
We see and hear Issa, but never get inside his mind. Le Carre presents him as a mystery figure on the run – we never learn whether he is the dreaded Islamic terrorist he is alleged to be or was unfairly imprisoned and tortured in Turkey. It is one thing to leave the readers guessing about his true nature. But to keep the readers guessing, a character has to be more complex like Gatsby or Willie Stark in All the King’s Men. Raving and ranting against injustice, Issa is more like a character out of a propaganda play.
Fortunately, there are more interesting characters in the novel. Like Gunther Bachmann, the German spy who has to keep an eye on Issa when he arrives in Hamburg. And Annabel Richter, the attractive lawyer who helps refugees and shelters Issa. And Tommy Brue, the British banker who is holding the money left by Issa’s father, a crooked Russian army colonel.
Issa, whose mother was a Chechen, wants to donate the money to Muslim charities, keeping only some for himself to study medicine and become a doctor.
But life is never easy for a man on the run. Nor for those prepared to help him. While Anna is questioned by Gunther, Tommy has to contend with British secret agents, who claim the money was really paid by them to Issa’s father. The Americans also appear on the scene, pursuing bigger game.
The scene where all three services sit down together to hammer out a common strategy is vintage Le Carre. The agreed strategy is suitably Machiavellian. Issa and his money will be used to lure a Muslim scholar living in Germany who raises funds for Muslim charities — with some of the funds going to terrorists.
The ending is explosive – and predictable.
I wish Le Carre would go back to writing about Smiley and his people. He can still write about people down on luck beautifully. Gunther and his agents contending with higher powers in Berlin are well portrayed. As is the banker, Tommy, whose bank is failing. whose marriage is on the rocks and who develops a soft spot for Anna.
A Most Wanted Man would have been better without the wanted man. And the anti-American polemic.
Le Carre has his own website.