Wednesday, July 20, 2011

A Most Wanted Man

Tommy Brue is a sixtyish British expat living and working in Hamburg, the son of a bank owner. When Annabel, a social lawyer comes to him with the story of Issa, a refugee and prisoner from Chechnya, Tommy is forced to relive the past. That is, his father's bank holds money from rich men trying to get out of the USSR. But this is 2008 and the world has changed. Annabel says that Issa stands to inherit the last of these accounts, but Tommy soon finds out that numerous intelligence agencies want Issa. Inexorably, the three of them are drawn into a game they cannot hope to win.

The post-Cold War le Carré is a more politicized le Carré, I'm finding. After reading the justifiably angry Constant Gardener, I gave this one a try, and it's suitably furious, except the target has changed. Instead of rich pharmaceutical companies and the governments with whom they are in bed, it's an anger directed at the intelligence communities. Before 9/11, le Carré and the world no doubt imagined that our shadowy protectors could never stoop to doing the things featured in - well - le Carré novels (or Ludlum novels). But alas, they did. After Guantanamo Bay and other such embarrassments, it seems that the world of spies had gone from the cerebral games to the business of torture. And le Carré is not happy about it.

After reading two post-Cold War le Carré novels and one classic spy-era novel, I can't decide which I prefer. All three of his books feature similar technical elements: the reliance on dialogue and thick jargon, the hapless and awkward protagonist who uses humour to mask his discomfiture, the careful structure that takes time to build. But unlike Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, A Most Wanted Man isn't quite the ingenious mindgame. Nor is it like the Constant Gardener in that this novel doesn't quite have the same emotional core. A Most Wanted Man is a polemic disguised as a le Carré novel. This isn't necessarily negative, but it's not really a credit to the book's identity as a story.

The structure is somewhat awkward. With Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the novel takes its time building a very careful history, but you think it's merely a backdrop for most of the book until it becomes apparent that the whole history is a lie, and crucially important. A Most Wanted Man offers more history of the world of spies post 9/11 in a more general sense - not rooted per se in the cast. The background of this novel is more for demonstration purposes. le Carré wants to show us that these spies are not the same spies we're used to. Plus, the game in A Most Wanted Man doesn't become apparent until late in the novel, not late in the game. The setup and execution of the spygame happens past the halfway point of the book. It's like the first half was le Carré spinning his wheels trying to invest his thin cast with some personality.

The two main characters aren't the problem; both Tommy and Annabel are interesting and real in the way le Carré manages to do it. What is problematic is the crucial character of Issa. His origin is confusing, his mannerisms even more, and he never rises above the point of one dimensional. This is a tragedy because he is so unbelievably important to the plot.

As for the spygame itself? Surprisingly simplistic. I had no trouble following this book at all. Even though Tinker Tailor is half the length of this book, it was doubly complicated. A Most Wanted Man is fairly by the numbers in its complexity. It's a decidedly minor le Carré plot, unfortunately.

I still enjoyed the novel though. le Carré's prose is consistently muscular and his dialogue always puts a smile on my face. I just wish the plot itself had a bit more meat on it. The end is fairly devastating but not in the way that you expect. I didn't see it coming, but according to the New York Times, I should have. Regardless, I liked the book; alas it feels like missed opportunity.

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