Contact Press Images

John le Carré at the Palestinian martyrs’ cemetery, Beirut, Lebanon, 1983; photograph by Don McCullin

If you feel that good novels are the lie that reveals the truth, then it will always be thrilling, in any given period, to come across works that manage to be much more revealing than the evening news. John le Carré made that kind of thrill into a genre, capturing the dowdy, fatal, realistic weather of European espionage at a time when the subject was covered on the BBC as if it were merely a parlor game beloved of donnish existentialists.

Even today, with his most groundbreaking novels behind him, le Carré continues to be the world’s most reliable witness to the vicissitudes of international paranoia: his books conceive of a Western world that has a costly obsession with its possible enemies; he shows you this world’s secret missions, its botched jobs, its manifold attempts to thwart the corrupting and sometimes terrifying idealism of others, while keeping the reader close to the exact lineaments of the way we live now. Some people call such activities prevention; some call them advance retaliation; for the Bush administration, this was the thinking behind “extraordinary rendition.” For the past several years, there have been tiers of people employed to spend a proportion of America’s tax dollars doing the kinds of things some people thought could happen only in novels by John le Carré.

In October 2001, a very much living and breathing nineteen-year-old Turkish man and legal resident of Germany, Murat Kurnaz, traveled from Bremen to Pakistan because, he said, he wanted to learn more about Islam. Near Peshawar, his bus was stopped by the local authorities: he was taken off, questioned, and later handed over to US custody (his interrogators later said that those who arrested him were paid $3,000) and taken to the Bagram air base north of Kabul, where he was tortured. Without trial or legal representation, he was then shackled and taken on a twenty-seven-hour flight to Guantánamo Bay. This is how prisoner number 061 later described his first day at Camp X-Ray:

“Do you know why you’re here?” I heard the man with the nametag ask.

“Do you know what the Germans did to the Jews?” he said. “That’s exactly what we’re going to do with you.”

Someone grabbed me by the shirt and pushed me out of the tent. Outside I saw a number of tightly packed rows of chain-link fence. It was like a labyrinth. I saw another prisoner in his orange overalls being led through the fencing. The soldiers immediately threw me to the ground. I landed on the gravel. “Lie there!” The man with the nametag pressed his knee into the back of my neck, pushing my face into the gravel, so that I could no longer see the other prisoner and the escort team. Only when they were out of sight did we move on.

Where is the prison they’re taking me to? I asked myself.

Kurnaz had not chosen the best time to visit Pakistan—“just as the American war against al-Qaeda and the Taliban was getting started,” as Richard Bernstein later commented in The New York Times.

Could he have been a Muslim fighter, recruited to help the enemy? The fact that he was a religious young Muslim from this city in northern Germany, only an hour’s train ride from Hamburg, where the main plotters of the Sept. 11 attacks had lived, apparently supported the American suspicions that he was.

Such was the state of paranoia after September 11, when every vaguely friendly, vaguely rivalrous intelligence agency in the world was zealously seeking links between Muslims and threats to national security. Kurnaz’s interrogators were apparently convinced that he had an association with at least one of the World Trade Center hijackers, Mohamed Atta. There was no evidence for this or for Kurnaz being a member of al-Qaeda. While in Pakistan, he came into contact with a group that was said to have jihadist sympathies.

In any event, Kurnaz was kept at Guantánamo for four years without trial: throughout the whole experience, he was waterboarded, starved, beaten, and deprived of sleep. Kurnaz later wrote that in Afghanistan he was also subjected to electric shock torture. In a 2005 review of the case, a federal district court judge, Joyce Hens Green, cast serious doubt on the evidence against him. He continued to be held and was eventually released in August 2006.

Kurnaz had always claimed that he was interrogated and abused by German soldiers in Afghanistan, members of the elite KSK unit. The German Ministry of Defense at first said that this was impossible; no KSK members, it claimed, were stationed in Afghanistan at that time. It later changed its story, saying that the unit was indeed there and that some of its members may have known Kurnaz. According to the German news organization Deutsche Welle:


The case is an embarrassment for Germany, which also faces allegations that the previous government secretly aided a US program to kidnap and fly terrorists to third countries for interrogation…. The Kurnaz case is also being investigated by a parliamentary committee, which is currently studying whether German security agencies breached any German rules while assisting post-2001, US anti- terrorism operations.

That is where the news ends. In John le Carré’s new novel we begin at the beginning, albeit a new beginning, where the story is heavily influenced by the tale of Murat Kurnaz. In a Hamburg street we first meet Melik and his mother. Melik is a Turkish boxer who has just bought plane tickets to attend his sister’s wedding in Ankara. They are followed home by a tall, skinny man who, we soon learn when he comes into their house at 26 Heidering, is called Issa. All three are Muslim; Issa is from Chechnya, and he reveals that he had paid to be smuggled from Istanbul to Copenhagen by ship, then to Hamburg by truck. The atmosphere in which the three meet is one now familiar in most European cities: it exists at the dark edges, where refugees and asylum-seekers live in a stage of nervous unbelonging. Issa is sick and covered in bruises. He has been beaten in a Russian prison and is running a temperature. Melik notices that he has with him $500 as well as a bunch of Russian newspaper cuttings, each one featuring photographs of a Red Army officer in uniform.

Le Carré is always deft when it comes to sketching out his aging cold warriors. Tommy Brue—sixty, loner, golfer, with a resentful wife—is head of an independent bank called Brue Frères. His father, Edward Amadeus Brue OBE, was the real cold warrior, but Tommy has lost none of his family’s sensitivity to the European dread of the haunting past. Indeed, that past comes calling late one Friday evening, when he is telephoned in the office by a human rights lawyer called Annabel Richter. He agrees to meet her in the bar of the Atlantic Hotel. It seems that Tommy’s father, during the heady years when the Berlin wall came down and money was being spirited out of Eastern Europe, compromised his respected Scottish probity by setting up a secret account—the Lipizzaner account—for the crooks who wanted to stash that money.

Tommy Brue at first assumes he is about to be blackmailed by Ms. Richter, but it turns out that she is indeed a lawyer, working for a charity that seeks to represent stateless persons. Her client, none other than the Issa we met at the book’s opening, believes that Brue’s bank can save his life, and that it has not only the means, but also the duty, to do so. Issa’s father, a Russian called Grigori Borisovich Karpov, was a founding holder of the Lipizzaner account, therefore a major Russian crook, and someone with, shall we say, a moral hold over the fathers and sons of the bank of Brue Frères.

This is when we meet that rather unlovely post–September 11 beast, the German intelligence service. Le Carré is rather restrained on the point, but there’s one thing you ought to keep in mind about this service: they were driven half-mad by their failure to pick up the jihadists operating out of Hamburg in the months prior to their attacks on the US. Since then these Germans have turned to the task with what can only be called old-fashioned zeal. In le Carré’s novel we are allowed to greet this tendency in the blustering form of Günther Bachmann, a real modern figure, who may stand for a whole universe of frustration: he wishes to outdo the British, the Americans, and each one of his colleagues in the Office for the Protection of the Constitution—Germany’s domestic intelligence service—in the attempt to pin down potential Islamic terrorists. Le Carré, more than most, knows exactly how that professional world used to work, and Bachmann becomes his all-seeing eye into the new dispensation:

Bachmann was never the one to be put out to grass. Those who said that Hamburg was a punishment posting didn’t know what they were talking about. Now stuck in his midforties, he was a scruffy, explosive mongrel of a man, stocky in the shoulders and frequently with ash on the lapels of his jacket until it was brushed off by the egregious Erna Frey, his long-standing workmate and assistant. He was driven, charismatic and compelling, a workaholic with a knockout smile. He had a mop of sandy hair that was too young for the crisscross wrinkles on his brow. Like an actor, he could blandish, charm or intimidate. He could be sweet-tongued and foul-mouthed in the same sentence.

“I want to keep him loose and keep him walking,” he told Erna Frey as they stood shoulder to shoulder in the researchers’ dank den in the [former] SS riding stables, watching Maximilian, their star hacker, conjuring successive images of Issa onto his screens. “I want him to talk to whoever he was told to talk to and pray where he was told to pray and sleep wherever they told him to sleep. I don’t want anybody interfering with him before we do.”

To German intelligence, to British intelligence, and, soon enough, to American intelligence, Issa, son of Karpov, is not the meek, studious, religious human rights case that he first appeared to be. To them he is an escaped militant who must be approached with caution. To their mind—minds, actually: the novel is as much about how these supposedly friendly spies undermine one another—Issa is almost a test case in how to combat terrorist evil.


Le Carré came out of the era of détente with a brilliant eye for the complications of loyalty, the self-loathing that can accompany fear and suspicion, and without missing a beat he has turned that eye on the equally actual world of terror suspects. Le Carré knows these spies, he was once one of them, after all, in MI5 and MI6, and he spotted the tendencies of these schizoid personalities a long time ago, in The Spy Who Came In from the Cold. “The same milk-and-water smile,” he has Leamas say of Control in that novel, “the same elaborate diffidence, the same apologetic adherence to a code of behavior which he pretended to find ridiculous. The same banality.”

You recognize the exact type when the British spies enter the picture, yet there are differences since the old days, many of which come with the new, more seemingly open, more media- responsive priorities of national security. In the age of the Internet, these men are no longer passing secrets in the lids of pens: they are fertilizing their worst fears almost at the point when a future bomber is born, thinking in the manner of conspiracy theorists, harvesting suspicion, attributing strangeness, assessing criminal aptitude, then striking before the iron is lukewarm. “The sources that we newly assembled pariahs here in Hamburg will be looking for have to be conjured into life,” says Bachmann in what his colleagues recognize as the Bachmann Cantata.

They don’t know they exist till we tell them. They won’t come to us. We find them. We stay small. We stay on the street. We do detail, not grand vision. We have no preconceived target to direct them at. We find a man, we develop him, we see what he’s got, and we take him as far as he’ll go…. The baggy little guys from the mosques who speak three words of German. We befriend them and befriend their friends. We watch for the quiet incomer, the invisible nomad on his way to somewhere who is passed from house to house and mosque to mosque…. We revisit old cases that started with a flourish and fizzled out…. We ignore the protests of our hosts, and we track these former prospects down. We take their temperature again. We make the weather.

No wonder they get it so wrong. They make the weather. Do they also fashion the evidence that flatters their schemes? Readers of A Most Wanted Man will make up their own minds, but in the meantime, one has to contend with the complications of Issa’s and Tommy’s relationship—and interrelationship— with the sins of their respective fathers. Issa has been on the run from various imprisoners and torturers, and though his father’s past shenanigans may throw him a rope, at times it seems that he would sooner hang himself with it. He hates his father’s memory and thinks the Russian mafia world he inhabits stinks: he speaks of his father as a defiler, and his own relationship with the money will not be straightforward. Le Carré has a beautiful, unfussy knack of understanding how parents’ complications—the force of a father’s great example, the force of a mother’s secret unhappiness—can come to act like motivations in the lives of their sad children. Tommy Brue will never be the banker his father was, yet could he possibly be a better person?

Le Carré’s characters are never ciphers, characters used, as one often sees lesser thriller writers doing with theirs, merely to people a newsy argument. No, the difference is that le Carré’s people have their own voices as well as their own souls. He might sometimes insist somewhat on the latter, but that is probably the nature of souls in literature: they ask to be insisted on.

Annabel Richter, the pretty, vegetarian human rights lawyer, is a good fictional character because le Carré gives her not merely a role in the book but a life beyond it. You get the strong impression that she is the victim of many lost battles with authority. Like the men, some of whom seem set to fall in love with her, Annabel is trying to establish her principles in a world where principles seem unsure. Isn’t it against the law, against American law as well as German law and English law, to remove a person to another country so that he might be subjected to more brutal interrogation tactics? She remembers that very thing happening to a previous client and she is determined that it should not happen to Issa. But again like the central men in the book, Annabel is something of a sum of her own psychological negotiations with her father:

We lawyers are not put on earth to be icebergs, Annabel, her father liked to preach: he of all men! Our job is to acknowledge our feelings and control them.

Yes, dear Father. But has it ever occurred to you that by controlling them you destroy them? How many times can we say sorry before we don’t feel sorry anymore?

And what—forgive me—do you mean exactly by control ? Do you mean, finding the right legal reasons for doing the wrong thing? And if you do, isn’t that what our brilliant German lawyers did during the Great Historical Vacuum, otherwise known as the Nazi era…?

It is interesting that le Carré should have chosen that word, “vacuum,” because that is what he often conjures in his novels, the integrity vacuum, the dead nothingness at the center of a fearful city. In his books, the Berlin of the cold war always feels like a place devoid of ordinary human contact, as if suspicion were embedded in concrete and sodium lights while solitary characters walk quickly among the shadows. The London of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy feels always like a place of grimy rain and untruths. The case is similar with Hamburg in this novel: the city exists like a cold waiting room, no cocktails or piano music, no church bells, only the open spaces where no one appears to be comfortable. Le Carré’s people are busy with real or imagined enemies but all the while one imagines that they are waiting for life to materialize. Various intelligence forces close in on our main characters with a view to exploiting them or using them in a blind campaign to change the world without really knowing it. This has always been le Carré’s subject, and he handles it here like the master he has long since become.

Meanwhile, back in the smaller reality of nonfiction, President Obama has begun the process of closing the detention center at Guantánamo Bay. Within a year the facility will seem like an element in an especially hostile dream we once had. His announcement was popular, and indeed, one might have difficulty thinking of a bigger, more symbolic act, one so capable of declaring that the Bush era has come to an end, that the new president is serious in his commitment to rebuilding America’s credibility in the world.

However, while torture has been flatly banned, we have yet to see what rules will govern “renditions” and CIA interrogations of suspects or what kind of inquiry will be made into the acts of torture and those who approved them. The Justice Department recently announced that one prisoner, Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, after being held for years, will be tried in a civilian court; but to how many others will that apply? While the new administration announced, on Obama’s second day in office, that there would be no more “extraordinary renditions” to countries that use torture, it is curious to observe that the prison facility at Bagram air base, where some of the worst torture has taken place, is currently undergoing a $60 million expansion that will serve to double its capacity.

This Issue

May 28, 2009