The Bank Account That Came In from the Cold

The Bank Account That Came In from the Cold


Plunder laundered into bearer bonds (locked away in “a tight-lipped file”) compounds to a private-equity underwriting of jihadist terror. 

That’s probably not how John le Carré would capsule his 2008 espionage novel A Most Wanted Man, which manages to weave together:  

  • rivalry among intelligence-gathering and national security agencies (German, British, and American)
  • infighting and maneuverings within “espiocracies”
  • hard feelings and recriminations as to September 11, 2001, especially in Hamburg, the “guilty open city” that played “unwitting host to the hijackers, and their fellow cell-members and plotters”   
  • illegal immigration and a Chechen fugitive who is a suspected jihadist 
  • cross-continent money laundering
  • a private banker who set up “Russian laundromat” for Red Army plunderings

As with just about every film adaptation, readers compare the scenes they “saw,” the voices and speakers they “heard” – in print – with the big-screen’s settings, casting, dialogue, and enactments.   

Every betrayal begins with trust: film scenes derived from novel moments
In the novel, le Carré’s gruff case-hardened field man explains his “recruitings” to his young German techies who are adroitly focused on computer screens and listening devices: “Sources [informants] have to be conjured into life. They don’t know they exist till we tell them. They won’t come to us. We find them.”

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To induce “cooperation” and to deceptively choreograph a betrayal, a high-minded lawyer is told, “Your choice is between us and nobody.” Readers are advised that intelligence operatives “are not policemen. We are spies. We do not arrest our targets. We develop them and redirect them at bigger targets....  Arrests are of negative value. They destroy a precious acquisition.” 

The acquisition: A benefactor of Islamic charities, who has to be deceived and intimidated as a prelude to being induced, compromised, and befriended. Threats are foreplay. He has to be offered “a new definition of loyalty” because there is intelligence that strongly suggests he is doing 95 percent good in order to do 5 percent bad – and that “5 percent bad can be very bad indeed.”

That 5 percent bad is facilitated by anonymous deposits in what might be thought of as sleeper accounts. Those accounts are awakened to finance the strategic “mishaps” of a navigation company registered in Nicosia, whose hop-scotch ports-of-call re-routings turn pallets of food and medical supplies into explosives, detonators, rockets and launchers. (For a brief moment in the film, the company’s Cypriot registration can be picked out in an archipelago of clues.)

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The film adaptation of A Most Wanted Man opened in the U.S. on July 25. In its 121 minutes, the movie (filmed entirely in Germany) does manage to incorporate the essence of the novel’s trust-betrayal themes, even as some of the novel’s dialogue is shifted to other speakers and adjusted for cinematic context. 

Evocation of time and place
A le Carré novel provides an international geographic way-off-the-beaten-path travelogue, plus a local Baedeker.Before the drama of A Most Wanted Man is fully revealed, the reader is walked along a lakeside path “ticked and hissed to the oaths of homebound cyclists.” The offices of a non-profit dedicated to the protection of the stateless and displaced are housed in “a guilty, down-at-heel accomplice of Nazi times, squeezed onto the corner of a traffic junction and walled in by garish cigarette boardings.”

The gruff German seeker-of-informants prides himself in his accomplishments as an interrogator who “doesn’t smash the front door down, but rings the front doorbell, and then goes in at the back entrance.” 

Metamorphosis of cargo, from benign to lethal
The novel explains the financial alchemy that – sometimes over months or even years, through anonymous deposits, withdrawals and remittances – morphs a charitable contribution (meant for food and medical supplies) into a holdback sufficient to “buy explosives for a couple of suicide belts.”

The benefactor is distanced from the siphoning and re-routings: “A little bit shaved off here, a small diversion there – the sums are not large. At the level at which terror currently operates, they don’t need to be. A few thousand dollars can be enough. In the worst places, a few hundred will do the trick. If we are talking Hamas, less.”

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Of course, that was 2008. The inventory of Hamas rockets and now drones has surely been amped exponentially by the perfidious generosity of Iran, which Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently and justifiably labeled “the preeminent terrorist empire of our time – financing, arming, and training Hamas and Islamic Jihad.”

In several of his novels (The Little Drummer Girl, in particular), I have been put off by le Carré’s  descriptions of Palestinian plights and what I take to be his condemnations of Israel.  I don’t share le Carré’s political sympathies and what I view as his skewed compassions.  (My skew:  In 1981 and 1982, I spent some time in Lebanon.)

Intelligence as ammo; intellect as weapon
And yet, I admire le Carré’s storytelling; I am in awe of his skill at weaving together so many characters and intrigues; his skill at delivering so much authentic suspense without computer-generated imagery; his fidelity to characters (certainly Leamas and Smiley) who are not babe magnets like James Bond and Matt Helm. In A Most Wanted Man, le Carré has the smitten private banker note “a small, high bosom, deliberately illegible.” The banker admits to himself that as to marital gratification he had “invested in the wrong market.”

Also to be admired are le Carré’s heroes and semi-heroes who do not routinely resort to gunfire; their ammo is intelligence; their weapon, intellect. I suppose le Carré novels would not be as complex and thought-provoking if they were unequivocal in demarking good and evil – what in my ken are Israel’s wholly-warranted defensive responses to what is incontestably evil.

Clear and present dangers
In A Most Wanted Man, the would-be German intelligence czar expresses his loathing of “liberal equivocation.”  In the course of “an unseemly public spat,” he shouted, “Just give me one-armed advisors.  Don’t give me any more people who tell me, ‘on the one hand, on the other hand!’” 

I wish le Carré’s evenhandedness didn’t rub against my unequivocal view of good and evil. Still, A Most Wanted Man is a most wanted account. Provocatively ambiguous, there are four male (and several female) characters who might be thought of as most wanted – in one way or another. In Western espiocracies, I wish there were more Günther Bachmanns.

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