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The Banned Books of Guantánamo

'A Most Wanted Man' by John le Carré

In banning my novel, the custodians of Guantánamo have once again demonstrated their sensitivity and respect for human dignity.

by John le Carré & John Sutherland
10 November 2014, 10:00am

John le Carré on his own book:
​In banning my novel, the custodians of Guantánamo have once again demonstrated their sensitivity and respect for human dignity. No prisoner who has not been found guilty of any crime should be subjected to cruel and degrading literature.

John Sutherland on A Most Wanted Man:
​The fact that le Carré's book is banned at least certifies that the censors at Guantánamo Bay can read – and take offence. Few novels have been more critical of America's post-2001 "security" apparatus than A Most Wanted Man.

When it was set up by FBI Director J Edgar Hoover in 1950, the Ten Most Wanted list featured criminals like Willie Sutton, immortal for his answer to the question, "Why do you rob banks?" – "Because that's where the money is." Now, the list is dominated by Arabic names that are a lot harder to memorise than "Willie". And who are suspected of doing a lot more than robbing banks.

JLC's novel is inspired by the story of an actual rendered "inmate". And, of course, inspired by the CIA – one of those branches of the American security establishment funded by "black", unaccounted for money, and charged with keeping the rest of the world's bad things away from the homeland.

For those of a speculative turn of mind, America's attitude to the CIA is fascinatingly ambivalent. The film adaptation of le Carré's book, for example (it's a leaden adaptation; loses all of JLC's bitter fizz) indicts the ethical dishonesties and moral treacheries of the service. So does the immensely popular TV series (now a franchise), Homeland. The best film in the genre is Robert De Niro's sole venture into auteurism, The Good Shepherd. De Niro! The nation's Meet the Parents father figure.

Like Catholic confession (we have sinned, father), the American psyche, by giving cultural houseroom to these critiques of what it is doing politically, in America's name, enables itself to tolerate – and pay its tax dollars for – "security". Using whatever it takes. Rendition, waterboarding, prison without trial, denial of reading materials... Perhaps they're right. Two-mindedness is universal for any thoughtful person.

Obama told us, when he was elected back in 2008, that one of the first things he'd do would be to wind down that prison camp located (surreally) on the island of Cuba. He won't be in the White House in January 2017. The way things look, Guantánamo will still be there. POTUS changed his mind. America has still to make up its mind(s).

I love America. But it's a complex place, going all the way back to its founding fathers protesting universal freedom while owning slaves (a point made in another fine self-critical American film, Killing Them Softly, with its last line, venomously delivered by Brad Pitt: "I'm living in America, and in America, you're on your own. America is not a country; it's just a business.")

America, the land of the free, still runs Guantánamo. Extraordinary.

John Sutherland's latest book is How to be Well-Read (Random House). Header image by Marta Parszeniew.