Absolute Friends by John le Carré
Little Brown 2004 400 pp. 26.95
Copyright © Steven E. Alford
After a few novels—some impressive, some wobbly—that moved his spy apparatus into the post-Wall present, John le Carré is back to what he does best, romanticizing the lives of those who fought and loved anonymously in the intelligence services on both sides of the Cold War. Absolute Friends follows the familiar and entertaining pathways of a spy’s education, in life, love, the ambiguities of ideology, and the soul-killing betrayals that fate visits on those who inadvertently find themselves conscripted into Her Majesty’s service.
Ted Mundy is, in every visible respect, a failure, owner of a defunct English language school in Heidelberg, on the run from his creditors. “A bit of a comedian, obviously. A failure at something—a professional English bloody fool in a bowler and a Union Jack, all things to all men and nothing to himself, fifty in the shade, nice enough chap, wouldn’t necessarily trust him with my daughter.”
What makes him stand out is not his present, but his past. Pakistani-born, Mundy greeted the world on the day northern India turned into Pakistan, within hours of being one of Midnight’s Children. His seemingly exotic, talented mother died in childbirth, and Mundy was left to be reared by another failure, his alcoholic, debt-ridden father, a former major of the British infantry in India, who, by Mundy’s adolescence, was cashiered and shipped back to Britain.
In school, an outcast Mundy is drawn to the German language, and by 1969 he finds himself in Berlin, living in an illegal squat with a group of lefty layabouts, people for whom a terrorist “is someone who has a bomb but no aeroplane.”
In Berlin he meets Sasha—a brilliant, charismatic, oratorically gifted, powerfully heterosexual ideologue—who becomes his friend. And this relationship will become the most important in his life. He will have others, with his future wife Kate and their child, with the British Council—the cover for his intelligence activities—with his Turkish girlfriend and her son, but Sasha will become the distant beacon by which Mundy will orient his duplicitous existence.
Le Carré’s striking novelty in Absolute Friends is to continue his story past the collapse of the Soviets and dramatize what was lying in wait for the double- and triple-agents: all those Stasi files, fluttering from office windows onto the streets of Berlin, exposing men to the world, not for what they were, but what they seemed to be, since a successful double agent would appear in the files as a turncoat.
After the Iraqi invasion, on the run in Germany, Mundy is once again united with Sasha and given a chance to redeem his life with a new undertaking, working for the immensely rich but shadowy figure he knows as Dimitri. This billionaire has his own view of what our president has done.
“It was an old Colonial oil war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty, and it was launched by a clique of war-hungry Judaeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America’s post-Nine Eleven psychopathy.”
Dimitri recognizes that, after the Cold War, “warfare is the extension of corporate power by other means.” Sasha and Mundy, financed by Dimitri, embark on a murky scheme to fight the global corporatization of the world.
This being le Carré, no one is who he seems, and the ultimate stake in this novel is not the fate of the world, but the fate of a friendship. In Le Carré’s world, the worst that can happen is not death, but betrayal.
Absolute Friends is le Carré’s best work in years, and suggests that he’s finally solved the puzzle of how to integrate the world he knew so well into one in which the enemy is not political ideology, but economic globalization.