Ive known the famous author of spy-thrillers John le Carré (né David John Moore) for many years, in the 1960s I saw the film The Spy Who Came in From the Cold made after the book with the same title, I read A Small Town in Germany in the 1970s and Russia House in the early 1990s; I found the film and the books thrilling, why didnt I read more of his 24 books? Ive realised that Im too simple-minded for the genre, I often have to read an ending more than once until I get the pivotal twist and that can be frustrating.
When I read a review about Absolute Friends (2003), I thought I could give it a go, what intrigued me was that the story is set in Germany, for me its an extra pleasure to find out how an author describes a country I know well, what they find worth mentioning, if theyve done their homework and have got everything right. Le Carré used to live and work in Germany for many years, first as a civil servant, later as a member of the Secret Service, so I didnt really expect him to make mistakes, but theres always hope. :-)
The Brit Ted Mundy is a tour guide for the English-Spoken cattle in one of Mad King Ludwigs castles in Bavaria, the beginning of the first sentence, On the day his destiny returned to claim him . . . is superb, I want to go on reading. Mundy is on the run from the debts that accumulated in the language school he had in Heidelberg together with a partner who fled with the last of his assets. He lives together with a Turkish woman and her son in Munich and seems to be settling down of sorts. On the day in question his old friend Sasha visits him in the castle and tells him to meet him at a clandestine place outside.
The second chapter shows that this isnt the beginning of the story proper but only a frame, were taken to the Hindu Kush and learn about Mundys childhood in Pakistan where he grew up as the son of a British colonial officer. I was a bit puzzled by le Carrés decision to use a frame story whose nature is to be taken up again in the end, so whatever is going to happen to Mundy in his life will end well, or at least not in a catastrophe, and finally lead him to Munich, Germany, wheres the thrill then?
Mundy and his father move to England, a rain-swept cemetery for the living dead powered by a forty-watt bulb. At boarding school he learns German, during his language studies at Oxford he gets into contact with radical students and when he can go to Berlin for an academic year, a friend sends him to a certain Sasha. Hes a refugee from the GDR (German Democratic Republic) and the charismatic leader of an anarchist students squatter commune. The two hit it off at once, Ted moves in with Sasha and they become friends, theyre separated, though, when Ted is beaten up by the police and sent back to England.
The year is 1969, the students unrest is boiling, hardly anyone does any academic work any more, its the time of blockades, sit-ins, manifestations (Stop the War in Vietnam!). Le Carré excels in this part of the novel, he definitely knows what hes writing about, he knows the names and the importance of the most influential leaders of the students movement, the SDS (Socialist German Students Union), the APO (Extra Parliamentary Opposition), describes the rage Sasha and his friends feel against the establishment and their hope to overthrow it and to introduce a socialist society.
This part of the story moves me not only because its about an important period in the history of my home country but also because Ted and Sasha are only a bit younger than I am and what is described here is also part of my life. I didnt belong to any radical movement, but it wasnt possible not to be touched by what was going on. One can say that the Federal Republic of Germany wouldnt be what it is today without this period and the ghosts of that time still haunt the country. Its difficult for me to imagine that the vast majority of the readers will see all this only as background information (after all a novel must be set somewhere) - proof that the post-modernist insight that each reader reads their own book is correct.
Sashas dreams dont become true, though, the proletariat doesnt join the students, overthrow the establishment and create a socialist state which frustrates him so much that he moves back to where he escaped from, he gets over the wall from West to East. He learns very soon that socialism in theory is quite a different thing from the real-life socialism in the GDR, in the end he becomes a double agent and having found Ted Mundy again draws him in as well. They both spy for the East and hand over their knowledge to the West. I cant spoil the plot for you if you havent been hibernating during the last decades, its clear that Perestroika and the disappearance of the Iron Curtain make the two spies redundant.
The frame story from the beginning is taken up again, weve got a well-constructed novel of 244 pages, strangely, it doesnt end here but goes on for another 140 pages! What follows? Sasha, the dyed-in-the-wool revolutionary, has found a new enemy and - as before - draws Ted in to fight him. This time its American neo-imperialism but we dont get a second round, a re-warmed version of the East-West spy-story, the remaining text is more a pamphlet, le Carré uses his characters to preach us his view of the world, listen to this, 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 Americas post-Nine Eleven psychopathy. Strong stuff, eh? Doesnt do the novel good from a literary point of view. And then the finale of apocalyptic dimensions! I had to read it three times until I finally got it.
Of course, I cant hold my simple-mindedness against the author. What I do hold against him, however, is his use of the present tense. I dislike it with all my heart, I tolerate it only in chick lit where the period of time which is described is short and the breathlessness created by the use of the present tense is adequate. But Absolute Friends follows the lives of two men over three decades! I cant imagine what made the author write the book in this silly way, it really gets on my nerves.
Any more niggles? Oh yes, indeed, the façade of the Hotel Ritter in Heidelberg is not Baroque but Renaissance! :-)
first published in 2003
RRP 6.99 GBP
Absolutely, says Ted Mundy, often, using that typically middle-class phrase of the mid 20th century. But only a part of his background he was educated at an English public school conforms to this stereotype. The rest of him has been formed by a wide variety of environments and influences which combine to make him a perfect spy.
Readers of John Le Carré will recognise that last phrase, the title of one of his previous novels. When the Berlin Wall fell and the Cold War was declared over, many book reviewers lamented that this also spelled the end of the spy story. Not so. It is alive, well and thriving in the masters hands; partly because Le Carré has always written novels which happen to be about spies, rather than spy stories, and partly because, well, there are always new enemies against whom the dark arts of espionage can be deployed.
So if the fall of the Berlin Wall marked the end of Smiley versus Karla-type confrontations it also heralded Le Carrés focus on the characterisation of individual agents. He presents us with a guy and they are always guys who, for various reasons, finds himself working as a spy, and builds up a portrait of the background, personality and motivation which led him into this strangest and loneliest of vocations. So we had Magnus Pym in A Perfect Spy, Harry Pendel in The Tailor of Panama, Oliver Single in Single & Single and now Ted Mundy.
For this kind of approach to succeed you need to get your character under the readers skin. They have to empathise with, and like him. This is where Le Carré was so brilliantly successful, in my opinion, in A Perfect Spy and this one too; less so in other similar novels. The reader, this reader anyway, likes Ted Mundy as soon as he is introduced, working as a tour guide at the Linderhof, one of Mad King Ludwigs Bavarian castles.
Mundy at this point is in his 50s, his life of spying come to an end with the Berlin Wall. The novel is then a long flashback taking in his childhood in India just at and after Partition, his schooling in England, Oxford drop-out, Berlin student radical various professions as teacher, British Council representative, language school proprietor. At each stage of his formative years he meets a particular individual who exerts an abiding influence on him, and each of these mouldings produces the multi-faceted personality that is Ted Mundy, spy. He acknowledges this when he divides himself into different selves to cope with his double life: Mundy 1, Mundy 2 and Mundy 3.
But it is Sasha who is the influence par excellence. What are we to make of him? Is he Mundy 4, our own fate we all carry within us? It is on the face of it a strange friendship, for they are complete opposites. Mundy tall, gangly but athletic, a second-row rugby forward and demon fast bowler; Sasha dwarfish, deformed, learning to ride a bike one of the highlights of his life. Mundys past rooted in colonial upheaval, Sashas in the division of Germany. They first meet in a squat in Berlin where Sasha holds the community together by force of personality. If everything in Mundys life so far was moulding him to the possibility of his eventual vocation, this was the catalyst which defined the course of the rest of his life.
The narrative thread finally gets us back to the point where we started, at the Linderhof. The dénouement proceeds to unroll in Heidelberg, and it is a very different game from that which Mundy has been used to. Where before there was some certainty, now nothing is what it seems. To borrow another of Le Carrés titles, it has become a looking-glass war. Or, as Sheriff J W Pepper said in Live and Let Die, observing the havoc created in his fiefdom by James Bond during a typical car/boat chase, Secret agent? On whose side? How appropriate, too, that the finale takes place in a city so redolent of enlightenment and learning, within a mile of the Philosophers Path, and in a country much of whose literature examines the theme of Sein und Schein, illusion and reality.
The whole is written in Le Carrés discursive style. He doesnt do terse. Nor does he dwell a great deal on the trappings of spycraft although he is well versed in the subject and we can be sure the passing references are spot on. Those looking for action episodes, narrow escapes and cunning plans wont find them here. Instead we get long speeches, beginning with almost the entire spiel delivered by Ted to his English spokens on his Linderhof tour and moving on to socialist dialectic in the Berlin commune. Descriptions of formative events, states of mind and interrogations are also long and considered. Not a word is, however, wasted. The author is the controller, to use a spycraft term, shaping events to make the whole seem as planned and inevitable to us as it seemed haphazard and coincidental to Mundy. He combines superb story-telling with breadth of language, multiple layers of meaning, and some vicious, clear-sighted swipes at current world power-play.
Nothing is absolute in Ted Mundys world, but I can absolutely guarantee you will find this a riveting read.
382 pages. Cover price £7.99, Amazon price £5.59.