Moral dilemmas, betrayal in the post-9/11 era

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Moral dilemmas, betrayal in the post-9/11 era

The spying game is not what it used to be.

That is a matter of regret for John le Carre, eminent novelist and former spy, who has done more than almost any other writer to forge our idea of how the game is played. Ian Fleming’s action-hero James Bond may be more famous, but le Carre’s universe has the ring of truth. His secret agents exist in a world of stalemate, moral compromise, ambiguity and betrayal.

That’s again the terrain of his 21st novel, “A Most Wanted Man,’’ but in some ways the landscape has changed. The end of the Cold War changed things. The Sept. 11 attacks changed them again, revealing a frightening new menace and adding a glossary of chilling new terms - “war on terror,’’ “extraordinary rendition’’ - to our common language.

“I have no nostalgia for the Cold War,’’ says le Carre, who worked for British intelligence in Germany in the 1960s, when tensions with the Soviet Union were at their chilliest. “I think I have nostalgia for the hope that existed during the Cold War that when it ended we would redesign the world. We never did that. We missed the whole trick.’’

A Most Wanted Man, which comes out Oct. 7, is set firmly in our jittery post-9/11 world. Le Carre locates the action in Hamburg, the German port city where several of the 9/11 hijackers planned their attacks. Its central character is Issa, an enigmatic half-Chechen refugee who appears in Hamburg sporting a long black coat, muddy motives and a claim to a mysterious fortune. To Annabel Richter, an idealistic young human rights lawyer who takes up his case, Issa is a challenge. To the German, British and American spies who hone in on him, he is a possible asset and a potential threat.

Le Carre is fascinated by the way globalization and immigration have brought disparate peoples closer together, without bridging the gaps in culture, wealth and experience that divide them. Despite attempts at mutual understanding, the novel’s characters are on a collision course.

“We know so little, we understand so little, about Islam - the cultural differences that separate us, the thought processes that separate us,’’ says the writer, whose real name is David Cornwell. “It’s very difficult to find a common ground. I’m not offering solutions here, but trying to paint a moment in our time. I’m very hung up on trying to catch the moment of where we are and trying to make a neat little story that reflects our feelings.’’

Since his breakthrough book, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,’’ in 1963, le Carre has become one of Britain’s most successful writers. Many of his books - most recently “The Constant Gardener’’ - have been turned into films. His books may be categorized as thrillers, but they are reviewed as serious novels.

Nan Graham, editor-in-chief at le Carre’s U.S. publisher, Scribner, says he transcends genres. She said le Carre “has always put his characters in a moral maze. And I think this book, which is partly about the War on Terror, makes it clear that the War on Terror is fraught with as much moral ambiguity as the Cold War.’’

Le Carre lives with his wife Jane in a house high above the rugged coast of southwest England. Sitting amid the book-lined walls and solid wooden furniture of his London house, he looks the picture of middle-class contentment, a white-haired 76-year-old wearing a hearing aid and a gray sleeveless sweater.

But he is not mellowing into old age. His conversation, like his writing, fizzes with a moral outrage that is at odds with his kindly, avuncular manner. The enemy in his new book is not just terrorism, but also the treachery and betrayal of supposed allies.

Author: John le Carre

Genre: Thriller

Publisher: Scribner

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