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Le Carre Tackles Terror In 'A Most Wanted Man'

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."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.