Ambiguous and magnetic characters carry stamp of a masterful storyteller

 

BOOK OF THE DAY / John Boyne: A Most Wanted Man,John Le Carré, Hodder Stoughton; 342pp; £18.99

THE DARK backstreets of European cities continue to offer rich settings for the novels of John Le Carré; in this, his 21st book, it is Hamburg which provides the location, a city forever linked to the 9/11 bombers, three of whom worshipped in the local mosque in the months leading up to the attacks on the Twin Towers.

The novel opens with a 23 year-old Chechen refugee, Issa, arriving at the home of Melik, an amateur boxer, and his recently widowed mother, who in the spirit of Muslim charity takes him in, feeds him and gives him a bed, to the discomfort of her son. Melik softens when he realises how badly the young man has been beaten but his suspicions remain. As the action moves to the headquarters of a failing Hamburg Bank, we are introduced to its owner, Tommy Breu, who is quickly contacted by a civil rights lawyer, Annabel. It's here, at the intersecting point of the lives of Issa, Breu and Annabel, that the narrative unfolds.

In these early scenes, it's clear that Le Carré wants his readers to recognise the generosity of the Muslim spirit, the true meaning of Islam, rather than the more violent tendencies associated with the religion in American culture; here is a writer, hugely popular in the States, unafraid to go against the grain of his readers.

Throughout his career his work has relied on a basic understanding that we are all suspicious of those who we fail to understand. For decades, those suspicions gave us the Cold War. Since its end, Le Carré has turned his attentions to eviscerating accounts of the threat that the West poses to the rest of humanity in his study of greedy oil companies, inhuman pharmaceutical conglomerates and self-regarding politicos. It seems natural that he should now turn his attention to global banking. But it is in his characterisation that the confines of the spy genre are fully transcended. As the reader becomes more drawn into Issa's story - he claims to have spent time in a Turkish prison, where his beatings occurred - we drift from sympathy to suspicion, belief to incredulity, and it's the novelist's skill that we are kept guessing. "In my law school we talked a great deal about law over life," Annabel points out. "Law not to protect life, but to abuse it. We did it to the Jews. In its current American form it licences torture and state kidnapping. And it's infectious."

At times the novel's complexity threatens to overwhelm the reader. Exactly who is on who's side, who's using someone else for their own personal gain, and what each of the characters actually believe in are often hard to define. In this regard it recalls Norman Mailer's Harlot's Ghost, a gargantuan novel where the machinations of the spooks all over the world left one wondering how the world wasn't simply destroyed by atomic bombs when these half-mad networks of operatives, alliances and cells were at their peak.

Nevertheless, any confusions are swept away by the pace of the storytelling and the care with which Le Carré constructs each of his characters. There are no black and whites here; each character has a life and a history of motivation which leaves one feeling that they could turn on the toss of a coin. (Perhaps the most interesting of all is Tommy Breu, whose private bank is a source of historical corruption and whose legacy overshadows his own existence; the history of the Lipizzaner accounts makes for terrific reading.)

Nearly half a century after the publication of his first novel, Le Carré remains one of the great storytellers of his time. This book contains less righteous anger than his last novel, The Mission Song, and will certainly prove less controversial than The Constant Gardener, but it remains a thrilling and politically challenging read, even until its dramatic, action filled climax.

• John Boyne's most recent novel is Mutiny On The Bounty(Doubleday). A film adaptation of his The Boy in the Striped Pyjamasis in cinemas now