I somehow got out of sequence with the le Carré novels, and seem to have read the two that come after this before finally getting around to it. Neither have I seen the film, which was one of the last made by Philip Seymour Hoffman before his death in 2014.
This is a post 9/11 spy thriller, set in Hamburg, concerning the attempts to gain intelligence about the militant terror networks that spring up wherever the so-called Western powers choose to occupy. With the old simple opposition between capitalism and communism, all you had to do was find someone greedy for Western wealth and turn them. With a war of occupation with a religious dimension, you’ve got nothing.
Issa is a Chechen refugee, a muslim (though ill-educated in his faith), who has come into possession of the key to a numbered bank account, which has been used to launder money stolen by a Russian army colonel. The private (British) bank where the account is held is a declining family business in the charge of Tommy Brue, the last of his line, who is managing the bank into oblivion. A German lawyer, Annabel Richter, approaches him on behalf of the illegal Issa and all three are drawn into the crooked and amoral world of the various intelligence agencies, who spend more time competing with each other than they do gaining any actual intelligence.
Brue is a typical le Carré hero, a man who means well but finds himself out of his depth, at the mercy of the guidance he receives from shady British Intelligence characters who claim to be representing his best interests. The same fate befalls Richter, who meets the German counterparts of the British spies, who are themselves fighting the eternal le Carré battle between Operations and Intelligence, which he has written about before.
It’s the conflict between those who want to leave people in the wind but turn them into agents who can inform and those who want quick fixes, results, bad guys rounded up and put away. It’s this endless battle we see constantly being played out when terror incidents happen: who knew? When did they know? Wasn’t this preventable? If this person was known to the authorities, why wasn’t he (or she) arrested before they could do any harm?
The answer, from Intelligence, would always be that these people are more useful if you can turn them into informants, if you can follow them, see who they interact with, turn them if possible, and then the next person up the chain, and the next, and so on. And anyway, even if they were arrested, none of the evidence you have against them can be used in an open court, so you can’t actually hold them or prosecute them.
Ah, well, says Operations, in this post 9/11 world, we’ve adjusted the law here and there to allow us to round people up without charge, hold them in secret locations, interrogate them endlessly, and neither charge nor release them. We can even spirit them away to countries where torture is allowed and use enhanced interrogation techniques.
So it goes. On the one hand, the traditional spy game of dead drops and coded conversations and building up dossiers that can be used to blackmail people and gather more and more intelligence until you can land a Big Fish. On the other, a body or two bundled into a van and removed from circulation, unable to plan or participate in terrorist actions, and not mourned by the Great British (or American, or French, German) public, who have no sympathy with people who keep that kind of company.
Never mind that they might be innocent.
Both sides are wrong, of course. The thing about modern terror is, it’s not the Cold War. There isn’t a superpower at the end of the chain. There are just a series of people with loose connections and hundreds, thousands, of dispersed and decentralised cells, none of whom are answerable to each other, any of whom can act independently. Target A has no idea what Suspect G is up to.
So Intelligence are wrong because there is no network to infiltrate. And Operations are wrong because by rounding up people without due process and by allowing them to be tortured they are being precisely as evil as they claim the enemy are: they are morally wrong, on the wrong side of history, and their actions are unconscionable. They are the SS, the guys with skulls on their lapels: the bad guys.
Here, le Carré reigns in his righteous (and warranted) anger, and allows the events to speak for themselves. I was ploughing through this at great speed until I got to the final third and realised how it had to end. Then I slowed down, because the inevitable, brutal ending to this story was not something I wanted to read. Le Carré does not give happy endings. Even when Smiley succeeded, back in the day, his satisfaction was muted with his own sense that he was not morally different from his enemy. Nowadays, with various agencies surveilling, detaining and rendering with impunity, there’s no possibility of a good outcome. And yet he doesn’t give voice to the excoriating anger that has leapt from the pages of his recent novels. He allows events to unfold and then leaves us there, alone, to feel the frustration and rage that is all our modern War on Terror ever gives. These people are out of control, and still, the average man or woman on the street doesn’t care.