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Absolute Friends
By John Le Carré
Little, Brown
HC, 455 pg. US$26.95
ISBN: 0-3160-0064-7

Espionage dressed up with editorial

By Steven Martinovich
web posted January 19, 2004

Absolute FriendsJohn Le Carré has never shied away from the notion that a spy novel should contain a core message, something to debate after the story is finished. From the beginning of his career as a writer his protagonists have fought a battle that seemed to be as much about dealing with the uncomfortable moral questions raised by espionage as from the consequences of their actions. His spies have always been multidimensional characters who asked questions of themselves and authority, far from the automatons that grace the works of other lesser writers.

The hero of his latest work Absolute Friends, is one Ted Mundy. Born of an English officer in Pakistan, Mundy eventually finds himself in England at school where he discovers a love for the German language. After a brief spell at Oxford, Mundy travels to Berlin in 1969 just in time to participate in student protests. It is there that he meets Sasha, the intellectual leader of a student commune. With Ted without a family and Sasha having rejected his, the two men begin a friendship that intertwines them for the next three decades. With the skill of a writer who has long practiced his craft, Le Carré convincingly paints a portrait of a Berlin and its anarchist movements.

After being arrested by West German police after a protest and ejected from the country, Mundy finds himself back in England where he becomes a teacher at a prep school. A failed writer, Mundy eventually lands himself a job with the British Council, which promotes cultural and artistic ties between Britain and Europe, and while on a trip to East Germany meets up with Sasha again. His friend is now a dissatisfied member of the East German secret police who decides to involve Ted in a scheme: He will pretend to recruit Mundy for the Stasi but will really be passing along secrets to the West. The two men are successful in their operation until the fateful year 1989 when the collapse of Communism changes the world as they know it.

Unfortunately Absolute Friends goes off the rails at this point. What was carefully crafted story of friendship and espionage gives way to wild polemic on current events. Le Carré, who made headlines last year with an essay arguing against the Iraq War, turns his novel into a screed blasting the United States and England. Le Carré's voice takes over Ted and Sasha's with statements on the war like "That war on Iraq was illegitimate... it was a criminal and immoral conspiracy. No provocation, no link with al-Qaeda, no weapons of Armageddon. Tales of complicity and Osama were self-serving bullshit. It was an old colonial 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." Le Carré, through Mundy, argues the United States is a "renegade hyperpower that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment." What was a spy novel turns quickly and disappointingly into an extended opinion essay.

Absolute Friends collapses in the final section of the book which sees Ted recruited by Sasha to work for a mysterious billionaire eager to promote his vision of the world. The climax, which strains credibility and the reader's patience, paints America's determination to silence its enemies and dissent in a cartoonish manner, devoid of any plausibility. In Le Carré's world, the most dangerous animal is the United States. Where ideologies were once the most threatening force, it is now the current resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Absolute Friends could have engaged in serious debate about the post-September 11 world but Le Carré preferred instead a one-sided discussion, much like his anarchist Berlin students earlier in the novel.

Absolute Friends shows quite clearly that Le Carré is still capable of creating interesting stories and characters. That said, it is a failure not because of his opposition to the Iraq War, the United States and excesses in the war against terrorism, but because Le Carré seemed more interested in a strident screed proclaiming his beliefs than debating the moral issues that underpins his characters' actions. Absolute Friends could have prompted the reader to ask themselves the same questions that many of Le Carré earlier characters have but instead he choose to preach to what he hopes will be his choir.

Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada.

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