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.
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Le Carre Tackles Terror In 'A Most Wanted Man'

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Le Carre Tackles Terror In 'A Most Wanted Man'

Le Carre Tackles Terror In 'A Most Wanted Man'

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From NPR News, this is All Things Considered. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel. A couple of months ago, an advance copy of John Le Carre's latest novel, "A Most Wanted Man" arrived in the mail. On the cover of the advance edition was a letter from the author.

(Soundbite of John Le Carre's letter featured in the advance edition of "A Most Wanted Man")

Unidentified Man: (Reading) Dear Reader: New spies with new loyalties, old spies with old ones; terror as the new mantra; decent people wanting to do good, but caught in the moral maze; all the good, sound, rational reasons for doing the inhuman thing; the recognition that we cannot safely love, or pity, and remain good patriots. I'm pleased with the way this novel turned out.

SIEGEL: Best, John Le Carre. It's a pen name, of course. David Cornwell, a onetime British spy himself, has been writing spy stories under that name for more than 40 years. He wrote unforgettable novels about Cold War spies and the secret struggles between East and West. He spoke with me from London about the new book. The most-wanted man of the title is a young man who arrives illegally in Germany. He is half-Russian, half-Chechen, a Muslim suspected of terrorism. His name is Issa.

Mr. JOHN LE CARRE (English Writer of Espionage Novels; Author, "A Most Wanted Man"): 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 Chechen, in fact, because he is neither one nor the other. And he has - he's one of the few characters I've written about who had an original, as it were. I was in Moscow in, I think 1989, 1990, and I was running with the Chechen and the Ingush then putting together a book about the war in the Caucasus. And I met this stringy boy who was half-Russian, half-Chechen, who was hanging out with them. And I've kind of reinvented him in this novel.

SIEGEL: In addition to being about Issa, the novel is mostly about Germans and Brits. But there are Americans who loom around it, and then play a decisive role toward the end. And it occurs to me that in your novels, we're coming out, we Americans, are coming out worse and worse in every book. Do I have this right?

Mr. LE CARRE: Well, I don't think worse and worse in every book. I think that 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. They only walk on. So I suppose I am guilty there of a slightly polemical treatment. And so because the three people I describe were engaged in that process, I really didn't feel much moral ambivalence about them.

SIEGEL: So the variety of others in the novel do actually have a bit more nuance to their virtues and vices than the Americans who were pretty hopeless in your view.

Mr. LE CARRE: Yes. It's so. But I wanted, at the end, to produce the shock and awe that that kind of activity is supposed to produce, and I think the novel does that.

SIEGEL: There is a character in the novel, Gunther Bachmann, a very important character who is a - we describe him as a streetwise spy. He's on the case of Issa who has arrived on German soil from (unintelligible) to the east. How do you feel about Bachmann?

Mr. LE CARRE: Well, I'm very fond of Bachmann. He comes from the mid-levels of German intelligence. He might just as well come from mid-levels of American or British intelligence. He's an extremely well-seasoned, experienced field man who knows the reality of the enemy that he's fighting, to a point, and has a very sensible take in 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.

But he also knows that 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. But there is a greater philosophical need to adjust to the people we are dealing with, and Bachmann knows that stuff. And he's wise and gritty, but not very good as a boardroom politician and frequently bumps up against the frustrations of trying to present his case to his masters and failing.

SIEGEL: There's a scene in which he is failing in the boardroom, I guess. He's not sure of how he's going to come out of this meeting, and he's thinking and thinking about what he thinks of as the Bachmann cantata, what he'd really like to say to all of these politicians in the room. And I wonder if you could read that passage for us.

Mr. LE CARRE: Sure. I just have to find it. Yes, here we are.

Mr. LE CARRE: (Reading) That was another lecture Bachmann would have dearly loved to give to these swiftly risen managers of the post 9/11 boom market in intelligence, the allied trades; another Bachmann cantata that he kept up his sleeve the day when he was invited back to Berlin. It warned them that however many of the latest spies wondertoys they had in their cupboards, however many magic codes they broke and hot signals chatter they listened to, and brilliant deductions they pulled out of the ether regarding the enemy's organizational structures or lack of them, and internecine fights they had, and however many tame journalists were vying to trade their questionable gems of knowledge for slanted tip-offs and something for the back pocket, in the end it was the spurned imam, the love-crossed secret courier, the venal Pakistani defense scientist, the middle-ranking Iranian military officer who's been passed over for promotion, the lonely sleeper who can sleep alone no longer, who among them provide the hard base of knowledge without which all the rest is fodder for the truth benders, ideologues, and politopaths who ruin the earth.

SIEGEL: Politopaths, sir.

Mr. LE CARRE: Yeah, that was mine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: It's your own coinage.

Mr. LE CARRE: Yup. As with espiocraths, another one I like.

SIEGEL: As I was reading that wonderful sort of lyrical case for what the folks would say HUMINT as opposed to SIGINT, human intelligence, I was reminded of something that I both read and heard a former high-ranking CIA officer say, which was that when the American intelligence folks had human intelligence agents giving them information - say from Cuba over the years - it turned out that every single one of them was the stuff of one of your novels, was a double agent. So much so that when they did get an Iraqi who would tell them there is no nuclear weapons program, you can't believe it because you have to assume they're lying, so many of them are doing so.

Mr. LE CARRE: Yes and no. A single source at any time is a very dangerous creature. So you're always looking for what I think in journalism, here at least, is called truth cooked three ways. So if you do have a live source, you're probably able, these days, to back what you're hearing from him or refute what you're hearing from him by technological means. But once you get a few clues to the way he's thinking, you can start considering your other sources of intelligence against that background.

Also, you try to have a network, you try to have a group. It is perfectly true that such networks become penetrated, and they get turned against you, and that's part of the paranoia of the game. But I think it's still the case, if you were to ask people in Mossad, people in the agency, people - the spooks here in SIS whether they would rather have a really good live source or a huge bundle of technological intelligence, they would go for the first. It's more human. You get a good one, they're invaluable, absolutely invaluable.

SIEGEL: Well, John Le Carre, David Cornwell, thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. LE CARRE: Thank you.

SIEGEL: John Le Carre's new book is called "A Most Wanted Man." And you can hear more of my interview with him in which he dispels the story that he almost defected to the KGB. It's available at npr.org.

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