John Le Carré: Absolute Friends

John Le Carré: Absolute Friends

It's unlike John Le Carré, the current master of the Graham Greene-esque world-weary spy novel, to bang out a quickie. Although his last book, The Constant Gardener, appeared in late 2000, he clearly hasn't been working on Absolute Friends ever since: It takes place in 2003, after the invasion of Iraq, and its entire reason for existing is Le Carré's obvious outrage at American imperialism. Perhaps the elaborate and engrossing backstory of hero Ted Mundy, told in flashback in the book's first half, was already lying on his desk in March 2003, ready to be reset into an opportunistic polemic, and the rest of the novel was composed in a furious burst. Mundy is a child of colonialism, born in Pakistan just after the Partition, raised on his disgraced soldier father's lyrical odes to his absent mother. Turned on to German literature by a British teacher, Mundy heads to Berlin for study in the turbulent '60s and meets Sasha, his lifelong friend and alter ego, a charismatic, crippled radical intent on raising the consciousness of the German populace and bringing about the socialist revolution. When Mundy is deported after a demonstration-turned-riot, he settles down in London with a wife and a respectable job helping artists arrange cultural exchanges on the Continent. But on a fateful swing through Eastern Europe with a drama troupe, he encounters Sasha, now a double agent embedded in the East German Stasi, and he's recruited as a double agent himself. The two pursue the espionage game until the Berlin Wall falls, at which point there's suddenly no point to Cold War spycraft. Now, in 2003, Mundy has lost his British wife and child, thanks to the duplicity that was thrust upon him, and he's starting over as a Heidelberg tour guide with a Muslim common-law wife and son. When Sasha suddenly resurfaces with a plan to oppose the American-British foreign policy of pre-emptive strikes and unilateral regime change, Mundy is once again caught up in the futile madness of a pawn's life. No one can fault Le Carré's attention to detail: His characters' words and settings are as carefully drawn as ever. The book's rushed, passionate feeling stems as much from the whirlwind in which Mundy constantly finds himself–he's always being called to the barricades for some ideal or ideology which, for him, never runs any deeper than his desire for human contact–as from Le Carré's own haste. While Absolute Friends makes for a compelling read, it leaves a bit of a sour taste in the mouth, as the inevitable sacrifice and ignominity that is the fate of all pawns catches up to Mundy, and as Le Carré abandons his characters in favor of his larger jeremiad against all things Bush and Blair. But even at his most strident, Le Carré's frustration and despair are refreshingly robust, poking up jaggedly right on the surface. As was the case around the world on Sept. 11, sharing that emotion can feel more real and more unifying, at least in the moment, than analyzing, planning, or even dissenting. And with Le Carré's undeniable gift for a story, the passion of the moment is worth the bitter dregs that follow.

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