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by John le Carré
Viking Canada, September 2008
352 pages
$32.00 CAD
ISBN: 0670069124

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

As this 21st le Carré foray into the murky underworld of spies, spymasters, and those they control opens, we meet Big Melik and his mother Leyla, legal residents of Hamburg, formerly of Turkey, and lukewarm Muslims. Melik is a local celebrity amateur athlete, his mother a warmhearted recent widow, and their lives are about to change utterly and not, we fear, for the better.

They are being followed, one might say stalked, by Issa, a half-starved, half-Chechen young man in a flapping black coat who makes an irresistible claim on Leyla‛s hospitality. Claiming to be a Muslim medical student, but evidently someone with a far more murky provenance than he is willing to explain, Issa (the name is the Arabic for Jesus) wears an un-Islamic gold bracelet with a Koran charm on his wrist and a pouch around his neck that contains $500 and the key to a huge fortune left him by his father, a Russian colonel, who was formerly employed by the British Secret Service.

The money is in a clandestine account in a British bank located in Hamburg, at the head of which is one Tommy Brue, a not notably successful heir to his father‛s occasionally dubious banking practices. Brue is as good as many and better than some, a man who would rather not be swimming in the muddy waters of accommodation accounts and who might have washed his hands of all of it were it not for Annabel Richter, a civil liberties lawyer who takes on Issa and his fate with a dedication founded largely on guilt. She is young, intense, and principled, and Brue loves her, in a decorous sort of way.

These are not, of course, the only parties interested in Issa and his future. The attention of the secret services of the UK, Germany, and the United States is also fastened on him, for a variety of reasons. The UK, because of Issa‛s father‛s association with MI6; the Germans, because they would like to compensate for having overlooked Mohammed Atta and his friends when they lived in Hamburg; and the Americans, because they see a chance for a public victory in the war on terror.

The German representative is Günther Bachman, an old-fashioned spy, "one of those people in the world for whom espionage was always the only possible calling," who merely wants to do what he has always done - set up an intelligence network that can gather information that possibly might lead to the prevention of future outrages.

From all this, it must be clear that we are in the familiar le Carré moral landscape of conflicting interests, ambiguous aims, and uncertain outcomes. What is perhaps a little less familiar is le Carré‛s tone. It is almost irritatingly jaunty throughout, apparently refusing to take the matter at hand with the seriousness we might think it requires. It is only at the end of the novel that what le Carré is up to becomes clear. The tone is self-protective. There is a seething anger beneath the surface, an anger we feel might be volcanic were it allowed to erupt through the crust of jovial civility that shelters both reader and writer from a head-on confrontation with the pit that lies beneath our feet.

Over the years, le Carré has led us by the hand across difficult terrain, from the Cold War years, when he taught us the vocabulary of spycraft, to the collapse of the Soviet Union (when many thought he would have to retire from the field), to, lately, the geopolitics of oil and pharmaceuticals. Here, here returns to the scene of his earliest triumphs, East Germany, but now, of course, the wall is down and east and west are one. It was possible in the early days to retain a cooly ironic detachment in the face of superpower clandestine manoeuvring, but irony is hardly appropriate after the assault on the twin towers, the Madrid train bombings, the London Underground outrages, and on and on. Nor does it seem quite the right response to the appalling assault on civil liberties and common justice that is the stock in trade of the war on terror.

But who or what is there to be angry at? Issa might bear a certain resemblance to Prince Myshkin, but he might also be capable of strapping an explosive belt around himself and blowing dozens of passers-by to bits and le Carré is not about to tell us which is the more likely. It is this uncertainty that permits the shadowy spooks of several nations to act against every principle of justice and that makes us, and le Carré, acquiesce in what they do, hoping that they can prevent another disaster, but knowing that in all probability, they‛ve got the wrong man after all.

Reviewed by Yvonne Klein, November 2008

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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