John le Carré is undisputedly the master of the "unromantic" spy novel. He tackles serious world issues, and his mission is to raise the consciousnesses of readers in order to unmask what he perceives as geopolitical disasters. His oeuvre is further enhanced by the publication of his nineteenth book, ABSOLUTE FRIENDS. Readers will be reminded that, yes, he was a spy in Germany from 1959 to 1964. Fans who have read his work will find a pattern that he has honed, refined, shaped and re-shaped from his experiences and observations during those years and following, which became the foundation for the bulwark of his fiction.
He has turned those experiences into an extraordinary body of work that chronicles the Cold War, the building of the Berlin Wall, the United States' role in Panama, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the break-up of the USSR, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq, the evils of Al Qaeda, and a host of other pivotal events in contemporary history. At the same time he explores the workings of the minds of the men and women who find themselves working in countries where they use false names, lose their personal identity and often betray their own integrity. In ABSOLUTE FRIENDS le Carré takes a worldview that leads him to the conclusion that ..."There's a new Grand Design about ... it's called preemptive naiveté, and it rests on the assumption that everyone in the world would like to live in Dayton, Ohio, under one god, no prizes guessing whose god that is."
Clearly, the books le Carré writes are far superior to the ordinary fare usually found in this genre --- those stories that are usually crafted around a single problem for a cardboard hero to solve. le Carré's novels are wholly different and stand as literary pieces of spy drama. Recently, in an interview with the New York Times, he explained, "The purpose of the story is to tell a fable, to illustrate the dangers of what [Britain and the U.S. have committed to:] a virtual crusade in which we're exporting democracy by military means. ABSOLUTE FRIENDS did not just pop out of a box but came quite naturally from the other books, the source of my despair is that of somebody who was engaged in the cold war seeing everything coming round again. I'm also terribly concerned with how to entertain and tell a story. The comedy in this --- if there is a comedy --- is that the lies that have been distributed are so many and so persistent that arguably fiction is the only way to tell the truth."
ABSOLUTE FRIENDS introduces us to Ted Mundy, an English public school boy who was born in India (now Pakistan), an "innocent" who has held on to his Muslim teachings. He meets Sasha, an anarchistic charismatic guru-like leader of a commune where anything goes. Sasha escaped from East Germany just before the wall was erected and has rejected his past while nurturing a burning hatred for his father, a pastor who may have had Nazi ties. He hates the hypocrisy he sees all around him and believes he can change the world. He trusts no one and has secrets that push him toward chaos. He is a polemicist and political protestor whose ideas and ideals stir feelings in Mundy both personal in his devotion to Sasha and political because he wants to be needed and part of something larger than himself. He trusts Sasha implicitly because he knows that Sasha has a brilliant mind above his deformed body. Over time, these two outsiders become comrades and revolutionaries who are totally committed to each other and their causes.
But nothing in life is easy, and if one wants to change the world, life can be dangerous. When a rally in Germany spirals out of control, Mundy saves Sasha's life, even though he knows he will end up in jail. Here, he is at the mercy of his vicious jailers who beat him continuously. Sasha intervenes and rescues Ted, who then must leave Germany. With no family or friends except Sasha, he seems to float from country to country, pillar to post, from Taos, New Mexico back to Germany. And during this time, all he receives from Sasha are cryptic letters he doesn't answer.
Ten years pass and Mundy has finally settled down in England. He has a good job with the British Arts Council, a lovely young wife who is a teacher, and they have a child on the way. His position involves international travel, and during a five-week trip that is scheduled to end in East Germany, he is shocked when Sasha appears out of nowhere. Before he has time to think, Ted is smuggling a Polish boy out of Eastern Europe. He is carrying a stash of information and can tell no one that he has been co-opted into becoming a spy for the Anglos (maybe --- who knows who is really behind the orders he is given?) In less than twenty-four hours, Sasha has reinvented Mundy's life and put everything Ted has worked for in jeopardy. But true to form, Mundy can no more say "No" to Sasha than Sasha can resist his absolute trust in Mundy and only Mundy.
As the long years pass, former spy Ted Mundy has fallen on hard times. He is now an affable, talkative, lonely tour guide in one of mad King Ludwig's Bavarian castles. He has lost his marriage and is estranged from his son, yet in many ways feels free and safe in this simple life. He lives with a woman and her boy, and when he thinks about the past he is surprised at how similar it is to the present. He can't escape the dictum "what goes around comes around," and sure enough Sasha finds him again, expounding a new slant on his old politics.
He reminds Ted, "When you were a beardless child you were a pseudo-militant in Berlin. For their poor sick minds ... you are clearly a Euro-terrorist." As he talks his friend into another caper he continues his monologue about 'THEM': "they are trying to put us into one bed ... liberals, socialists, Trotskyites, Communists, anarchists, antiglobalists, peace protesters [and] ... pinkos." He convinces Mundy that 'THEY' are hoping to find anything that will link them to Al Qaeda and terrorism.
Sasha lectures him on the misdeeds and wrongness of American businesses as rulers of the "empires." He takes him to meet a billionaire activist whose agenda is questionable but will be lucrative for Mundy. As events unfold, a whirlwind of activity and the reappearance of old contacts put Mundy on alert. What is actually going on? Why will no one tell him "the plan?" He begins to hear the silence around him that sounds like bomb blasts, and he is forced to make life-altering decisions. He slowly begins to "see" and absorb the duality of his life and the lives of the people he thought he knew and trusted, especially Sasha.
Many years have passed and they are no longer young men, but in each other's company they somehow become invigorated. Their symbiotic relationship is always ready to spring into blind action and total commitment to each other and the "cause of the day." One of the questions le Carré asks is: When should spies stop doing their clandestine work? This is something that Mundy must reconcile within himself if he is to remain blindly loyal to his "absolute friend."
The story reaches into the underworld of thugs who threaten every person on this planet. Terrorists, spies, double agents, politicians with secret agendas, liars and thieves who work for government agencies run by people with narrow vision and a need for personal aggrandizement are exposed to the reader. Of his strong opinions in this novel le Carré has said in an interview that, in writing this book, he had to be careful not to come off polemical. But when a writer takes a militant stand on an issue so vast as the war in Iraq and criticizes the world leaders who invaded that country, it's hard not to be seen as a polemicist. Nevertheless le Carré has written an important, interesting and cautionary tale. In his words he sums up what he sees around him: "Governments spin, lie and lose their credibility, the electorate simply shrugs and looks the other way."
ABSOLUTE FRIENDS may be le Carré's best book to date. He reveals himself as a person of peace and his writing is stunning. This is a book that will provoke discussion, debate and controversy. After all, isn't that what literary fiction is supposed to do?
Reviewed by Barbara Lipkien Gershenbaum on January 20, 2011