A Most Wanted Man

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 November, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 09 November, 2008, 12:00am

by John le Carre Hodder & Stoughton, HK$285

Who wants him? Everyone, it seems. For a start, he is an illegal immigrant so the Swedish, Danish and German authorities want him extradited. He has escaped from prison in Turkey and before that from Russia where his torturers have not finished with him so they want him back. As a suspected Chechen separatist and Islamist jihadi, he is on many wanted lists.

Now two smooth operators from the British embassy in Berlin want to track him down. The section head of the CIA in Germany has made a special trip to Hamburg to discuss him; she wants a piece of him too. Divisions of the German intelligence services are squabbling over him, agreeing only that they don't want him to fall into the hands of the police. He knows nothing of them, but to the entire Berlin espiocracy he is a wanted man.

Gunther Bachmann, field agent of the quaintly named German Office for the Protection of the Constitution, also wants him - and thinks he has him - to serve as bait to catch a bigger fish swimming around in the murky waters of the so-called 'war on terror'.

An idealistic young lawyer and the shabby Scottish director of a struggling private bank in Hamburg also want him - but to save him.

Who is this most wanted man?

His name is probably Issa Karpov although perhaps that should be Ivan Grigorevich. He seems to be the son of a Chechen Muslim woman and the Russian Red Army colonel who raped her. He is tall, thin, weak, stubborn and exasperatingly childish but also the bearer of a great burden of suffering. Issa arrives in Hamburg a refugee and fugitive from some searing experience and it soon becomes clear that the assumption of the authorities that he is a terrorist is wide of the mark. He seems to inspire charity and cruelty in equal proportions. He is an innocent man.

John le Carre (below) has always been interested in innocence - the way it persists, is abused and returns, even in the most morally compromised of circumstances. His latest novel comes back to this haunting Dostoyevskian idea in the form of a story that delivers the pleasures of pace, excitement, character, sardonic humour, suspense and that wonderful dialogue we expect from him.

A Most Wanted Man, particularly in its first half, is as good as anything he has written.

This is Le Carre's 21st novel. It is immediately recognisable: the spooks and the bureaucrats, the suspicions and betrayals, the tension-filled operational climax, the strange complicities between hunters and hunted, abusers and abused. What continues to be remarkable about Le Carre's work, though, is its unflagging creativity. He never repeats himself.

There are two reasons for this. One is that the centre of gravity in each story is character, so that however similar the world in which his people move, each predicament is unique.

The other has to do with hard work. His novels are like those big Victorian genre paintings in which every square inch has things going on in it, fully imagined and scrupulously described. Le Carre practises what anthropologists call thick description. He is the last realist. He cuts no corners, so you can trust him.

With the collapse of the Soviet bloc it was thought Le Carre's writing might be redundant. This prognostication is about as accurate as the announcement that history is at an end. For his work as chronicler of the cold war has better equipped him than anyone else to be the fastidious observer of what has followed - the world of Russian mafiosi, money-laundering, fundamentalists of every stripe, migrant workers, dodgy banks, eco-crime, the world of the global corporation, the suicide bomber and the refugee. Le Carre continues to claim this new world as his own.