A Most Wanted Man, by John le Carré (Scribners, 2008), may or may not be a typical le Carré novel—the only other one I know I have read is The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), and that was forty years ago. The new novel concerns a Chechen refugee who makes his way to Germany through various uncertain means, the efforts of a lawyer and banker to help him, and the struggles of German, British, United States, and other espionage/security agencies to learn about and take advantage of him. The motives of everyone in this novel are suspect and ambiguous, and there are no clearly virtuous or evil characters. There is much we do not know, and are not told, about the Chechen refugee named Issa. He may have terrorist connections, and he may not. What seems most likely, however, is that he is sincere in his desire to study medicine and make amends for the sins of his father, a Russian KGB agent. The best example of this ambiguity in character is the Islamic scholar Dr. Abdullah, who is widely respected for his writings and his good deeds, but who may have, through indirect means, been responsible in a minor and perhaps unwitting way for funding terrorists. This particular ambiguity may be something inherent in the Muslim world, given the complex and confusing ways charities and banks handle money. It is something the Europeans are more willing to live with than the Americans. The young lawyer Annabel Richter who befriends Issa is outraged at the persecution and torture he has suffered, but in deciding to champion his cause at what may well turn out to be the cost of her legal career if not her freedom it is clear that other motives drive her as well—particularly the dynamics of the family in which she grew up and her relationship with her father. The banker Tommy Brue who decides to give Issa money does so not out of concern for his situation but because he is attracted to Annabel, bored with his failing marriage, and irritated that his stodgy and upright father apparently allowed Russian money to be laundered through his bank. The espionage agent Gunther Bachmann is genuinely interested in helping Issa, Annabel, and Brue, but he also wants to defeat other agents and officials he has competed with in his career. Every character has conflicted motives and backgrounds.
Political factors and national rivalries become important forces as security agencies compete and argue with each other over how to handle Issa and particularly Dr. Abdullah. Despite their initial interest in Issa, he ultimately becomes a pawn in their plot to enlist Dr. Abdullah as a counter agent. It becomes clear ultimately that an individual’s innocence and guilt are not important to these agencies—what matters is how that individual might serve the needs of the moment, whether they concern a nation’s security or one official’s desire for one-upmanship over another. It also becomes clear that for these agencies individuals such as Issa or Abdullah don’t matter as human beings, and decisions that affect them are carried out with carelessness and indifference. Individuals are consumed and, potentially, destroyed by these competing, ruthless, and amoral interests.
A Most Wanted Man explores and illuminates differences between Western and Eastern (Muslim) cultures—in the relationships of men and women, in how different individuals think, in how they interact with one another. The gulf le Carré exposes is wide and deep, and he seems to believe (with good reason) that the West has made a poor effort to understand the Muslim world.
The focus in A Most Wanted Man is talk and discursive narration about what people are doing and thinking. There is little dramatic action, even intellectually, so that the novel can be tedious. But the final scenes are high in tension, and the final paragraphs are devastating.