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Absolute Friends - John Le Carre

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Author: John Le Carre / Genre: Crime / Thriller

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      22.08.2007 18:09
      Very helpful



      One of the masters of spy fiction

      “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 master’s 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 Carré’s 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 reader’s 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 Ludwig’s 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. Mundy’s past rooted in colonial upheaval, Sasha’s 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 Mundy’s 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 Carré’s 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 Carré’s discursive style. He doesn’t 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 won’t 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 Mundy’s world, but I can absolutely guarantee you will find this a riveting read.

      382 pages. Cover price £7.99, Amazon price £5.59.


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