After reading the first few lines of A MOST WANTED MAN by John le Carré, the setting is not only clearly revealed, it presents a sinister sense of foreboding. Hamburg, Germany, is the background against which the story is juxtaposed. Some readers may be tipped off by this choice of location, where at least six of the 9/11 terrorists, including Mohammed Atta, were undisturbed in plotting their attack. In addition, the dark shadow of Baader-Meinhof lurks in the background.
But as the novel opens we observe a skulking, emaciated, barely clothed young man moving around from pillar to post in the middle of a cold night and very erratic in his manner. Yet something about his determination to stay where he is, huddled in the shadows and then sometimes showing himself, appears studied, deliberate and determined not to leave the area near the train station. Despite trying to hide himself in plain sight, he strikes a strange pose in this ultra rich city, in his beggar’s garb and subservient posture. He seems to be waiting for someone or something but is clearly unable to find who or what it is.
Melik Oktay is a Turkish heavyweight, a runner-up in the North German Championship hundred-meter butterfly stroke and star goalkeeper of his soccer team. He and his mother are leaving a travel shop when he and the stranger make eye contact. Something about him strikes a chord in Melik, but aside from noticing the deplorable shape this person is in, he is used to seeing the dregs of all kinds of humanity around the train station. Over the next few days the young “beggar” seems to be following Melik, who is at a loss to know why or quite what to do about it. Then, out of the blue, Melik answers his doorbell and finds the man holding a piece of cardboard that says in Turkish, “I am a Muslim medical student. I am tired and I wish to stay in your house. Issa.” Melik notices a tiny gold replica of the Koran dangling from a bracelet on the boy’s wrist. Just as Melik is about to chase him away, Layla intervenes and insists upon taking him into their home. She establishes him in the attic and embraces him as she would a long-lost son.
Issa tries to communicate in a guttural dialect of Turkish. But he could have been Russian. Layla finds out he is a Muslim and had been in prison in Istanbul. When she tries speaking to him in Chechen, they learn that is where he came from. Issa tells them a story that begins with him being smuggled away from his prison by bad people he had to pay. He became part of a group in which he and others were stuffed into a container where they could hardly breathe. They were then put on a ship that was to take them to Denmark (perhaps Copenhagen). But they took a detour to Gothenburg, Sweden, where he escaped back to the ship to Copenhagen. There, he boarded a Chechen lorry bound for Hamburg, and here he is. Melik is driven to the edge of his credulity and by his fury over the inconsistencies of what he has just heard. Even his claim to be a Muslim seems false when his practices do not adhere to the religion’s edicts.
The Oktays become more and more uncomfortable with Issa in their home. Mr. Oktay is dead, and although the house is paid off, he was the only one with official German credentials. Layla has been desperately trying to have her status legalized and, with that, Issa’s. With all of this in mind, they send Issa to an agency that specializes in helping immigrants.
Annabel Richter is part of Sanctuary North, “A Charitable Christian Foundation for the protection of stateless and displaced persons in the region of North Germany.” She is a gung-ho, novice attorney who asks to advocate for Issa. He shows her a small bag around his neck that he claims holds the means he can use to access money from a bank account held by a private bank. The nickname for the special account is Lipizzaner. When the cash is secreted away it is black, and when it sees the light of day it has turned white, a process known as money laundering.
Tommy Brue, the sole surviving partner of an international banking house, is drawn into Issa’s life story through secrets about his bank that he doesn’t want to remember or know. His father was not always the conservative power broker he purported to be. His dealings with elements of dishonest Soviets, the mafia and others made the bank fortunes, but to Tommy these were ill-gotten gains of which he wanted no part. And for most of his career he has kept his distance from these old transactions only to find the alleged and unlikely legatee (Issa) coming forth in a most unusual way. He receives a mysterious and cryptic phone call from Annabel, who says she must meet with him immediately on behalf of a client.
Meetings convene, calls are made, papers are prepared, and Issa demands that all of his inheritance be donated to his hero, Dr. Abdullah (known by others as “Signpost” since Abdullah’s idol, Sayyed Qutub, wrote the spiritual handbook of all Islamic militants, called Signposts Along the Way), who he believes is “a man of G-d” known for his philanthropic work to help the world’s forgotten people. More calls and meetings ensue, and soon, among the three principals (Issa, Annabel and Tommy) arrangements are made for a final distribution of the fortune to be held at the bank --- all kept under wraps and secret.
Or so they think. It never occurs to any of them that they are being watched, followed, tape-recorded and not in control of their destinies. The “protectors” are made up of different anti-terrorism groups: German, British and American, each with agendas and egos that allow them all to skirt the law or make it up as they go along. The only one still not completely jaded and perverse is Gunther Bachman, who does not ascribe to the philosophy of the British and American “spooks,” who believe they can do anything they want to anyone they think may be a terrorist. Bachman is not really interested in Issa per se; he has his eye on Signpost, who he believes is sending money not to charities but to terrorists. Could Issa know this? And is this why he demands that the Imam have all of his inheritance? Or is Bachman correct in his assessment of Issa and in direct conflict with his superiors?
John le Carré’s worldview has always been to put human rights in the forefront of any political tension --- and that is clear in A MOST WANTED MAN. He also devotes time to his observation of the ineptness of today’s spy masters and anti-terrorist agencies. Readers may already know that le Carré was a British spy. And in his long career, in which he has produced 21 novels, it’s not a stretch to understand that his experience, coupled with a strong sense of the human condition and nurtured by his intelligence and imagination, has made him the master of the spy novel. During the Cold War he had a firma terra from which to draw his tales, but in today’s world nothing is clear and each day brings new atrocities. A MOST WANTED MAN is many things in addition to being a strong polemic presented in fiction and represents the rage he seems to feel about how the West is fighting against Islamic terrorism.
But regardless of how le Carré expresses his personal politics in his novels, one thing has remained a constant in his work: his honesty. He never tries to mislead his readers nor does he try to disabuse them of their own opinions. Sometimes he may sound shrill or arrogant, and that should provoke readers to start thinking about their world and what is happening in it, especially in today’s uncertain times. le Carré is continuing his code of honor and attempting to tell everyone that the “emperor has no clothes.”
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on July 22, 2004
A Most Wanted Man