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Timely, angry, masterly Le Carre

A Most Wanted Man A Novel John le Carre Scribner: 330 pp., $28

October 15, 2008|Tim Rutten | Times Staff Writer

THE FIRST recognizable English-language novels of espionage were published in the first decade of the 20th century -- and both have been continuously in print ever since.

Rudyard Kipling's "Kim" came out in 1901, and Erskine Childers' "The Riddle of the Sands" followed two years later. You still can get a fairly spirited argument over which actually is the first true spy novel. (This reader inclines toward Childers' case, but it's really a bar stool sort of dispute, the kind that you keep going mainly as an excuse to order another pint.) The real point is that both were recognized, from the start, as works of literature, and as entertainments. No less severe a critic than the late Edward Said referred to "Kim" as a "hugely embarrassing" and yet "wondrous" novel. "The Riddle of the Sands" was picked in an English newspaper poll not long ago as the 37th best novel of the last century. Many people believe its descriptions of sailing are the finest ever written.

In both cases, the authors seized the opportunity to express an urgent social and political realism in tales of things ordinarily hidden from view. At mid-century, Graham Greene magnificently exploited the possibilities inherent in the porous membrane between the espionage genre and the novel of political criticism. But no author has made better use of that literary passage than John le Carre, beginning with "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold" in 1963.

"A Most Wanted Man" is his 21st novel and surely one of his best -- intricately plotted, beautifully written, propulsive, morally engaged, but timely as today's headlines. It's also a very angry book in ways that may discomfort some American readers. In a recent memoir of incidents from his own six-year service in British intelligence, Le Carre, now 76, writes of "the madness of spies" and the way in which their occupational delusions infect the body politic. "A Most Wanted Man" is an exploration of the murkily ambiguous and morally turbulent waters in which America's spies -- with their extraordinary renditions, torture and clandestine unilateralism -- now fish.

Hamburg setting

Part of what makes this new book such enjoyably compelling reading is Le Carre's return to two landscapes he knows so well. One is the moral geography of contemporary espionage in which means and ends, loyalty and patriotism are obscured by necessity and deceit. The other is the ancient Hanseatic seaport of Hamburg, most Anglophilic of German cities, where Le Carre -- under his real name, David Cornwell -- once served under diplomatic cover. (The author's most memorable character, British spymaster George Smiley, spent part of his boyhood in Hamburg.)

This Hamburg, however, is very much a post-9/11 city. On the one hand, the collapse of communism has allowed the north German port to resume its historic role as meeting place of polyglot Middle Europe and the West. On the other hand, deadly new antagonisms between religions and cultures have turned it into a shadowy but deadly battlefield. Here, the German-born son, Melik, of a Turkish immigrant mother, reflects on their adopted city:

"Leyla and Melik scarcely ever went to mosque, not even a moderate Turkish-language one. Since 9/11, Hamburg's mosques had become dangerous places. Go to the wrong one, or the right one and get the wrong imam, and you could find yourself and your family on a police watch list for the rest of your life. Nobody doubted that practically every prayer row contained an informant who was earning his way with the authorities. Nobody was likely to forget . . . that the city- state of Hamburg had been unwitting host to three of the 9/11 hijackers, not to mention their fellow cell-members and plotters; or that Mohammad Atta, who steered the first plane into the Twin Towers, had worshiped his wrathful god in a humble Hamburg mosque."

Follow the money

Into this tense metropolis comes Issa Karpov, illegitimate son of a Russian father and a Chechen mother. He may or may not be a terrorist -- or a sympathizer or perhaps even a funder of terrorists. He's definitely Muslim and an illegal immigrant: He escaped from a Turkish prison and a Swedish holding cell. He's come to Hamburg for something other than refuge. His father, now dead, spied for the British and the now-laundered million he earned for his betrayal is on deposit with a private British banking house operating out of the German city. Its proprietor, Tommy Brue, has his own secrets, mainly centering on the secret "Lipizzaner accounts" (named for the famous horses of Vienna's Spanish Riding Academy, which are born black and turn white as they mature) that his late father had set up at the behest of British intelligence. The successful money-laundering operation earned the father royal honors, an OBE, and the son a guilty conscience, since the whole operation was illegal and still hangs like a cloud over the bank he inherited.

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