Sunday, November 15, 2009

A Most Wanted Man

This book appealed to me when I saw it in Politics & Prose because it is set in Hamburg, a city I lived in for two and half years and visited again for the first time in a long time in September. It is classic Le Carré -- smoke and mirrors, betrayal upon betrayal, a pervasive cynicism limned with the slightest glimmer of hopeless idealism.

But I'm still puzzling over Alan Furst's over-the-top praise for the book in his NYT Book Review piece, blurbed on the cover, that this is Le Carré's strongest, most powerful novel. It is certainly accomplished, but far from being his best novel. It is detached, almost passionless in its understatement, and much less moving than A Constant Gardener, which while technically not as perfect has an undercurrent of genuine passion and outrage, and characters that have more depth and humanity.

It is more a return to the gray world of espionage, but without the looming menace that Cold War espionage lent to both fiction and reality. The main protagonist, Tommy Brue, is a British merchant banker who is basically as flat as the characters in the earlier and now largely forgotten Single & Single. While Le Carré is clearly fascinated with the possibilities of a banker as hero, he has yet to find the right formula to make it work.

Brue, 60, in his futile love for a young, attractive lawyer is more pathetic than anything else. It is difficult to relate to any of the other characters in what is virtually an ensemble cast, in the way that one could relate to George Smiley, as remote as his world was to most of us. Brue is a pale shadow even of Harry Pendel in The Tailor of Panama, also pathetic but a good deal more complex and interesting. Annabel, the lawyer, scarcely emerges as anything more than an old man's fantasy.

For some reason, Le Carré felt obliged to be discursive about espionage and terrorism in a couple of long set pieces couched as briefing presentations by characters, including one whose only role was to make a discursive presentation. Why, really, when his showing already conveys the message so much better? Is he afraid we don't get it. Yes, Gardener had some of that, too, but the reader was more willing to forgive it because of the evident sense of outrage.

There is a hint of outrage here, but submerged in the ultimate sense of futility as all of the characters fatalistically play their roles in a scenario they know is doomed. There is little surprise in the denoument, either for the characters or the reader, though at least in the second half of the book the pace does carry you along easily enough.

There is also little sense of Hamburg, though Le Carré is clearly familiar with the city. But whereas he could convey a compelling sense of place when it is London or Berlin or even Bonn or Africa, there is no real sense of a specific location here. Perhaps Hamburg's charms are too subtle to figure in a drama of this type.

Despite the impressive blurbs and the NYT Bestseller emblazoned the bland cover, I was totally unaware of this book's existence until I saw it in the bookstore. Perhaps Furst overpraised it in the hopes that Le Carré would someday hype a book of his, though why Le Carré would feel the need to do that is a mystery.

One is reminded in these late Le Carré novels of late Picasso, where the artist could make a fortune signing his name to pieces still better than what most other painters were producing but not possessed of the same vitality and originality as his earlier work.

The author does succeed in transferring some of the moral ambiguity of his Cold War thrillers into the post-Cold War environment of the "war on terror." But, again, it seems to lack the menace or urgency of that earlier setting. The book is not a waste of time, but don't believe the hype.

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