Le Carre Tackles Terror In 'A Most Wanted Man' John le Carre, a one-time British intelligence officer, has been writing spy stories for more than 40 years. In his latest novel, he explores the complexities of the war on terror.

Le Carre Tackles Terror In 'A Most Wanted Man'

Le Carre Tackles Terror In 'A Most Wanted Man'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/95365962/95484212" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

David Cornwell writes under the pen name John Le Carre. Cristian Barnett hide caption

toggle caption
Cristian Barnett

David Cornwell writes under the pen name John Le Carre.

Cristian Barnett

Book Excerpt

Read an excerpt from A Most Wanted Man.

More From The Interview

How Le Carre started writing about spies

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/95365962/95467449" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Le Carre And The KGB

On Sept. 14, London's Sunday Times reported that Cornwell, also known as Le Carre, nearly defected to the Russians when he was a British intelligence officer.

In a letter to the editor, Cornwell says he was misrepresented, but he says he feels "sorrow rather than anger."

Read the article, and the subsequent letter. Also, listen to part of Cornwell's interview with NPR, where he talks about the debacle.

Le Carre denies a report that he almost defected to the KGB

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/95365962/95467446" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

David Cornwell, a one-time British intelligence officer, has been writing spy stories under the name John Le Carre for more than 40 years.

He wrote unforgettable novels about Cold War spies and the secret struggles between East and West, including Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and A Perfect Spy.

In his newest book, A Most Wanted Man, Le Carre focuses on a young man named Issa who arrives illegally in Germany. He is half-Russian, half-Chechen, and he's a Muslim suspected of terrorism.

Le Carre tells NPR's Robert Siegel that Issa is one of the few characters he has written about who is based on a real person.

Le Carre says he met "a young, stringy boy" in Moscow in 1989 when he was researching a book about the war in the Caucasus. He called him Issa, which is Chechen for Jesus.

"Issa is for me an archetype of the wretched of the Earth if you like, engendered through the conflict in Chechnya, despised both by the Russians and by the Chechens, in fact," Le Carre says.

"For me as the writer, I went into it quite convinced that Issa had done nothing wrong in his life. He tried to protect his own people. He converted to Islam, but he was not a militant in that sense. He wasn't radical in the sense that somebody who is a member of al-Qaida is radical. But I like the idea that readers contemplate him with mystification, because I think it is actually exactly how we contemplate the mystery of Islam in our midst at the moment."

While A Most Wanted Man is mostly about the Germans and the British, there are three shady American characters in Le Carre's novel. Le Carre says he may be guilty of a "slightly polemical treatment" toward the Americans.

"In this book, because the three Americans who are sketched in are all engaged in extraordinary rendition — and because that is a process which I regard as totally evil and wrong — I find it very hard to make them more than two-dimensional," Le Carre says.

Another character who demonstrates Le Carre's approach to the war on terror is German intelligence officer Gunther Bachmann, a streetwise spy who is chasing Issa.

Bachmann "has a very sensible take on the so-called war on terror. He does want to penetrate the opposition; he does want to frustrate terrorist activity. He thinks he knows how to do that," Le Carre says. "He also knows this cannot be done alone without a political and a humanitarian context.

"We can't win the war on terror by dropping bombs on people or confining them in prisons. There is a greater philosophical need to adjust to the people we're dealing with."