Summary (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Absolute Friends marks John le Carré's highly controversial foray into the post-Cold War world of shifting alliances, international tensions, and unlikely collaborations which stem from personal and national histories and unleash their disastrous effects in the novel's present, 2003. Le Carré established himself as a master of the espionage genre with his third novel, The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), a realistic treatment of the spy world that served as a stark contrast to the then-popular chronicles of James Bond penned by Ian Fleming. In a total of seventeen spy novels, le Carré has created—in some senses, re-created—the world of the British secret service, replete with its routines of trade-craft, surveillance, and countersurveillance. Le Carré's agents run in an uncertain universe of frustration, disillusionment, and futility of individual effort in face of concerted wealth and power for destruction. Like his classic Karla trilogy (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, 1974; The Honourable Schoolboy, 1977; Smiley's People, 1979), Absolute Friendsexpands upon his mythic history of the Secret Service while adding to le Carré's gallery of agents whose pasts have come back to haunt them.
Consistently and reliably, le Carré's novels have also dealt with the political realities of their times: the two Germanys, the Russian Thirteenth Directorate, British political defections and counterespionage, the building and eventual destruction of the Berlin Wall, persistent strife in the Middle East, the horrors of ethnic cleansing in Chechnya and other regions of the former Soviet Union, and conspiracies of every stripe, including the neoconservative terrorist gambit in the present volume. Part of le Carré's art is the shaping of contemporary events into and through the lives of his characters in such a way that history becomes biography. That remains his great strength as a novelist: the ability to interest readers in historical and current events through the creation of credible characters who must contend with those events.
This is clearly the case with le Carré's tale of Edward “Teddy” Mundy, a reluctant spy born in the Indian subcontinent into a world of international conflict on the day Pakistan gained its independence, August 15, 1947. Mundy's “biographer,” the voice that tells his tale, is le Carré's familiar omniscient speaker, one reminiscent of Joseph Conrad's Charlie Marlow. The voice of le Carré's narrator is that of authority, meticulous in its attention to person and place and the sequence of events, a trusted voice that reveals the innermost thoughts and aspirations of his subjects and, in so doing, some of his own attitudes. At home equally among the rituals of the Edinburgh School of Deportment (a spy school that has replaced the fabled Sarratt of earlier works), the protocols of The Wool Factory in Bedford Square (a subsidiary of the Cambridge Circus address that is home to British intelligence), and the usual, everyday world of ordinary people, the narrator, like Charlie Marlow, becomes a familiar voice that speaks to set the record straight, to clarify the place of the characters in history with an infallible global positioning system that locates them both physically and metaphysically.
The narrator introduces Mundy at work in one of Mad King Ludwig's Bavarian castles, where he leads tours for English speakers, never letting the details of history get in the way of telling a good story about the place and its builder. In fact, Mundy is in hiding from creditors and supporting a new family: a Turkish woman named Zara and her son, Mustafa. The creditors include those whom Mundy's erstwhile partner, Egon, bilked when he fled with the proceeds of their Academy of Professional English in Heidelberg. Into this new phase of Mundy's life a ghost appears, Sasha, the absolute friend of the novel's title, a former colleague in the radical student world of 1960's Berlin, a fellow spy and a long-lost comrade from Cold War days. Sasha comes with a message and a mission that propels Mundy headlong into a new adventure. Such is the novel's historical present, from which the narrator leads readers on a sentimental...
(The entire section is 1717 words.)
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