Thursday, 27 November 2008

Head to Head: Le Carré v. Fatah

The German papers are full of John Le Carré’s A Most Wanted Man (translated as Marionetten by Sabine Roth and Regina Rawlinson; in record time, I’d say). The unusual interest is understandable, as the book is set in Hamburg – and it’s about Islamist terrorists. Or rather it’s not, it’s about the spies who set out to catch them and the people who get caught up with them on their way.

I read it a while ago, almost in tandem with Sherko Fatah’s excellent Das dunkle Schiff. Much has been written about this great novel, even in English, and I don’t think its shortlisting for the German Book Prize was the only reason. See, for example, new books in german, the German Book Office and Litrix. Plus, as I’ve mentioned what feels like a million times, you can read an extract from the book on sign and sight (trans. Alexa Nieschlag). As you may well know, it was cruelly robbed of the big prize by Uwe Tellkamp’s doorstopper on bourgeois Dresden.

But that takes nothing away from this magnificent book. I won’t write about it in length here as so many have done so before me, but suffice to say I enjoyed it a great deal, as the adventure tale of a young man almost buffeted through life. Fatah describes the underbelly of life in Iraq and Berlin, painting a particularly oppressive picture of stowaways on a ship bound for Europe that reminded me of Traven. The book’s ultimate message – to me – was about the power of words and storytelling, from oral traditions to internet videos. In the end, its protagonist arrives in Berlin and unwittingly sows the seed of the jihad he was attempting to escape from.

John Le Carré’s Most Wanted Man, of course, is very different. Reading it, first of all, made me appreciate Sherko Fatah’s ambitious but sober prose all the more. But I gradually settled into that Le Carré frame of mind and began to enjoy it. OK, so you know from the beginning that the idealists are going to be disillusioned, just like in all his other books. But it’s the journey to that point that’s the interesting part.

It starts off with the very same constellation of characters that Das dunkle Schiff closes with: a confused young man from abroad (Fatah’s Iraqi tallies with Le Carré’s Russian/Chechnyan lad) making friends with a Turkish-German wannabe gangsta. From there, though, the two books’ paths separate and Le Carré does what he’s good at: a spy thriller with great characters and plenty of local colour. There’s the naïve and helpless Russian who becomes a honey trap by virtue of the zillions of dodgy roubles his errant father deposited in Europe, the attractive German idealist, the cynical German agent, the aging English gent who gets involved by accident, and a cast of espionage professionals from around the world in supporting roles. All with lots and lots of Hamburg in the background.

If I sound unimpressed that’s not the case – I think Le Carré does what he does very well indeed, and it was a great read and a great rail against common espionage practices. It’s unrealistic to compare the two books, but all’s fair in love and literature. And Das dunkle Schiff comes out on top for me – as an excellently written study of one tiny way in which militant Islamism finds its way from the Kurdish mountains to the streets of Berlin. Plus I was hugely impressed by the man himself at a reading, as you can read here.


David said...

Will you be doing an end-of-year listing of the top 5 (or 10) books for 2008?

kjd said...

Hmmm. I think not exactly, no.