Saturday, January 17, 2009


Dave gave me the British first edition of John Le Carré's 2008 book, A MOST WANTED MAN -- and the copy he gave me was signed. To me, that's love. And awesome. And the only drawback to owning it is that I had to be really, really careful while reading it, to keep it in pristine condition. That was a challenge: holding it carefully, while being swept away by the characters and plot.

If you're an avid Le Carré reader, as I am, chances are you prefer his George Smiley novels. Classic Cold War espionage elevated by the deep compassion and grief with which Smiley sees the losses around him (of humans and of decency), they sit on my shelf in well-worn paperbacks so that I don't have to miss a minute when I'm re-reading one. So the hardest part of reading, say, THE CONSTANT GARDENER, which has none of the Smiley characters in it at all, is separating from expectations. Second hardest for many reviewers has been the strong anti-American sentiments that Le Carré exposes in his later novels.

So I opened this book hesitantly, wondering how it would hold up, as another non-Smiley political thriller. And what a relief -- the first few pages strike the same note of middle European fear and tragedy that wrenches Smiley's sense of obligation in the earlier books. In the unkempt and genial person of Turk expatriate Big Melik, and the tortured body and frail mind of the half Chechen Issa, a classic Le Carré is already unfolding.

Whether Le Carré can build his female protagonist as powerfully, though, is something I questioned as he introduced the German civil rights lawyer Annabel into the plot. It's especially hard to decide this while being aware of this author's mixed presentations of Germans in earlier books: some of them as passionate as Smiley himself, but others more obsessed with upholding rules and being right. So I think Annabel's characterization, caught in this ambivalence, never quite reaches the strength that would cause me to bond with her.

Tommy Brue, on the other hand, the British banker stranded in Germany with the remains of his father's business and the skeletons of his father's unexpected hidden life, comes through vividly. And as Brue and Issa become inextricably entangled in the politics of the Great Powers, that sense of devotion and affiliation blossoms.

Yes, there's an anti-American bias to the book -- or, more precisely, a bias against some kinds of American political machinations. That, in turn, means the finale of the book will feel suitable, if bitter, to American readers who are centrists or have left of center views; I don't think it's going to work, though, for anyone who sees the George W. Bush presidential administration as healthy and worthwhile, globally.

Well, it's not the first espionage work to end up in political waters. Le Carré's resonant storytelling is strong here, and there may be a shadow of George Smiley watching from a shadowed doorway. For me, this was worth the reading. And I'll read it again -- as soon as I can find a copy that won't suffer from being taken to bed or stuffed in a suitcase!

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