A Most Wanted Man, by John le Carré
Location, location, location is as much the mantra of espionage fiction as it is of another profession’s literature celebrated for making things seem what they are not. And location, not just in the sense of topographical reality, but of mood, atmosphere and the specifics of time and culture, is at the core of John le Carré’s latest novel. Stained by a centuries-long history of anti-semitism, tarnished by its recent association with Mohammed Atta, present-day Hamburg provides a writer with a rich mix of post-9/11 moral complexities — a city caught between an anxiety to make amends to the Americans for the outrage on Manhattan and its own guilt-driven desire, as Le Carré’s spymaster Bachmann bluntly puts it, ‘to make amends for its past sins’ by an ‘arse-licking tolerance of religious and ethnic diversity’.
Into this city, ‘parading its inexhaustible, amazing, indiscriminate tolerance’, and with its shadowy hinterland of mutually exclusive vested interests, is pitched Issa, an illegal Muslim immigrant. Issa may or may not have a terrorist past but he certainly has the profile to attract suspicions. The product of the rape of a Chechen woman by a Red Army colonel, he has come to Hamburg to escape beatings and torture in Russia and Turkey and hopes to train as a doctor. Through Turkish intermediaries he meets Annabel, a human-rights lawyer, and through Annabel makes contact with Tommy Brue, whose private British bank once offered murky financial services to Issa’s father. Annabel is sympathetic to his plight, Tommy to her cause, and together they constitute the bleeding heart of liberal Hamburg. Its steelier side emerges as Issa’s presence is picked up by every rival agency of the intelligence community and the subsequent story is played out against all the ambiguities implied by the book’s title. Issa is ‘wanted’ by those who care for him because he fulfils a need, he is a ‘wanted man’ for his supposed terrorist affiliations, and he is — most clinically — wanted for his potential as a pawn in the convoluted game of counter-terrorism.
This is Le Carré territory and his faithful readers will feel at home in a world that he has made distinctively his own. There is the familiar backing group to what he calls the ‘espiocracy’ — the whizz-kid computer nerd, the double act of smoothies from the British Secret Service, the right-wing hard man from the German Ministry of the Interior at war with the urbane head of German Foreign Intelligence, the suave American hit-man and a mysterious ‘other’ who puts in the odd appearance but says nothing. Stock characters from central casting, perhaps, but this being Le Carré, there is more to it when it comes to the principals. These are drawn with all his old skill to produce a tale that consciously explores the difference between black and white moral landscapes and the night and the light and the half-light of human emotions. Issa is both victim and manipulator, devout yet ignorant of his religion, attractive and repellent. And as the catalyst of the novel he has a life-changing effect on everyone with whom he comes into contact. The jaded banker finds his conscience, the lawyer feels compelled to put life before law, the spymaster demonstrates his humanity — and if this sounds like a morality tale then that is because it is one. Just not, perhaps — this is Le Carré after all — the one that for nine-tenths of the book it appears to be. q
To write a political memoir is difficult. Too bland, too afraid to be rude about former colleagues, you risk boring the general reader while disappointing your publisher. Too critical, you lose the few friends among your former colleagues you have left, while appearing spiteful and embittered to the general reader. We can all think of examples of ex-ministers in both categories. Nigel Lawson is one of the few among late-20th-century politicians who have avoided both Pooh-traps and produced a memoir which is near to being required reading for the interested amateur.
Norman Fowler is no Nigel Lawson. This reviewer never knew him as more than a passing acquaintance, even when he was a colleague in the dog days of the last Tory government and briefly in the early days in opposition after 1997. He has had a long and distinguished career as a minister and as a servant of the Conservative party. He served in the Thatcher cabinet both at Transport and as Health and Social Services Secretary, and as party chairman after the 1992 election. He is the man who coined the phrase that he was resigning ‘to spend more time with my family’. He is one of the few who, in uttering it, were telling the truth. He was generally well-liked, competent, loyal, middle-of-the-road, quiet, unflashy. It is difficult to imagine that he ever harboured ambitions beyond the cabinet. Indeed, at one point in this book, he confesses that once he had hoped to be home secretary. It probably did him no harm that he had been at Cambridge with so many of those who came to grace both the Thatcher and Major cabinets. No wonder prime ministers and party leaders repeatedly sought his services. He was that rare but essential commodity, a safe pair of hands. As he says, Margaret Thatcher saw him as a good defender.
The book is consistent with the man. As you would expect from a former Times journalist, the prose is workmanlike and his account of the events he describes, clear. He eschews gossip. There is a whiff of truth in his self-description as a ‘media Jeeves for the politically-oppressed’.
At one level, it sounds worthy and ever so slightly dull. However, for those interested in politics, the book is more than that. He uses his closeness to events for over 30 years to draw conclusions about the dynamics of governments, both Conservative and Labour. He understands what happens when an administration ‘runs out of steam’ as he puts it. Moreover, time and again his judgment of people and events rings true. For instance, he is justifiably kind to John Major, whose decency and doggedness and unrecognised achievements he underlines. As a result, his criticisms seem fair and could not give offence even to the most thin-skinned of former prime ministers.
He is also good on Margaret Thatcher. He is surely right when he says that she stayed too long and that she came to rely too much on a gang of personal advisers. The latter point is one Christopher Foster makes in his book, British Government in Crisis. Blair’s utter destruction of proper government process would have been more difficult had our greatest postwar prime minister not started the job for him. (Incidentally, now that members of the shadow cabinet are treated like undergraduates and are issued with Summer Reading Lists, it is surprising that, as they prepare for government, they have not been asked to read Foster’s book.)
The most amusing page for this reviewer in Fowler’s book is a magisterial wigging he delivers to a former colleague, one Cranborne. This is the sort of judgment that is best delivered by one who is only partially in possession of the facts.
More importantly, the book implicitly raises the question that concerns every politician, however prominent. As Fowler points out, electorates don’t vote for divided parties. Some questions, to some politicians, are more important than party unity. Does cleaving to your principles become self-defeating, depriving your party of the chance of office and letting in something worse, or are some questions so important that party comes second? To many, Europe is one of those questions. For the most honourable of reasons, Norman Fowler is a party man. For others, it is not always so straightforward.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated October 4, 2008