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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1717

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...

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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 journey into Mundy's personal history.

The journey stretches back to Mundy's birth in the Hindu Kush on the day of Pakistan's liberation, his childhood on the subcontinent and then in England in the shadow of his disreputable father, his schooldays, and then his brief career at Oxford University before traveling to Berlin's Free University in the late 1960's at the height of the Vietnam War and the height of the student protest movement led by his new friend, Sasha. Le Carré's narrator perfectly captures the spirit of camaraderie in the era of protest—doctrinaire, idealistic, and adventurously opportunistic in its socializing. During a heady revolutionist protest rally, Mundy saves Sasha from a deadly beating at the hands of the police and lands in hospital with a severe beating himself. Here he first meets Nick Amory, vice consul to the British High Commission in Berlin, a civil servant who has appeared in earlier novels and who will twice cross Mundy's path unexpectedly later in the work. Amory will, upon resignation from the government, ultimately reveal the conspiracy to which Mundy falls victim.

Mundy takes years to recover from the Berlin experience, years of Wertherian wanderings in which Sasha intermittently writes him letters. Mundy's lover, Judith, goes over to the Palestinian cause. Mundy himself flits from present to past in memory as he travels to England, the Middle East, his birthplace in Pakistan, and, eventually, back to England for a short-lived teaching stint in a rural preparatory school and a dead-end attempt at journalism. He then settles down as a would-be writer in Taos, New Mexico, in a blurry time that leads Mundy to a liaison with a woman who helps him find a roost in the British Council back in England.

Thus, in London's British Council, Mundy begins his own new life, a life of purposeful civil service in the Greetings Section. He squires visiting artists and academics of every sort on visits to London's artistic and cultural institutions, then canvasses schools throughout England on behalf of burgeoning Anglo-German alliances. He then meets and marries Kate, starts a family, and gets promoted to a field assistant position in Overseas Drama and Arts. Mundy's life, normal at last, never looked so good to him, the narrator suggests. His Purgatorio and Infernolay ahead.

On his very first trip abroad for the Council, Mundy encounters a young Polish defector whom his troupe of young Shakespearean actors has adopted and wishes to take to the West through Berlin's Checkpoint Charlie. How, Mundy wonders, should he deal with the young Pole? As nothing in le Carré's world happens by chance, one must imagine that the Polish youth has been planted in the actors’ touring bus—but planted by whom? On the face of it, a mysterious “professor” may be behind it. The professor is running the East German agent, Sasha; and Sasha counsels Mundy to seek out “Mr. Arnold” at the British Embassy in West Berlin once he has the defector through to the West. Mr. Arnold turns out to be Nick Amory, who recruits Mundy into working for the Secret Service as a double agent while pretending to work for Sasha and the professor. In a classic le Carré fillip, Sasha is also working for Nick Amory, a.k.a. Mr. Arnold, not only receiving disinformation from Mundy but also providing some disinformation of his own while spying for England.

Progressively, Mundy's involvement with the intelligence service becomes more than a full-time occupation, informing his work with the British Council, necessitating his postings more and more frequently throughout Eastern Europe as well as the Western countries, and leaving him less and less time for his family, a situation that leads to divorce as his wife ascends in the political world of the Labour Party. In his travels, Mundy meets an American CIA operative, Orville J. Rourke, who is working both the English and the Germans for his own interests. Then, just as the divorce papers are filed, the hitherto unthinkable dismantling of the Berlin Wall happens, the Iron Curtain falls, the Cold War is over, and Mundy's spy world collapses, as does Sasha's.

Le Carré then brilliantly sketches the real operation of the novel, the setup of both Mundy and Sasha by the mysterious and wealthy recluse, Dimitri, who seems like a Disney screenwriter's idea of a fairy godfather. Dimitri will lead Mundy and Sasha out of their respective shabby circumstances, make them beacons of the nascent Counter University, and establish Mundy back in his old language school until, in the fullness of time, he can become a professor of the new world order. Mundy and Sasha are duped into believing that the proposed new world order of enlightenment, an educated elite, a world at peace with Islam and the West, in which the West is made to understand the error of its preemptive ways, is in the making and that they will be among its apostles.

Dimitri is a supervillain in sheep's clothing. That may be le Carré's point in making him the invention of the rogue American CIA agent Orville Rourke: the villains are overly villainous, as if characters in some over-the-top, Kiplingesque Great Game. They may, indeed, reflect the larger-than-life, one-dimensional characteristics of the American politicians whose presumed bidding they carry out in an excessive “shock and awe” extermination of a putative terrorist cell in Mundy's refurbished language school.

Le Carré has been characterized as angry, strident, preachy, and doctrinaire in his fictional condemnation of the fictional provocations of the neoconservative Far Right that he treats in the novel's final chapters. The inferno Mundy and Sasha must endure, and which concludes the novel, provoked a firestorm of criticism, more political than strictly literary but often in the guise of formal literary analysis, from numerous American journalists. Le Carré has observed that whereas public political statements are evanescent, the ability to interest readers in the fictive lives of characters may be more efficacious in conveying a political perspective.

Review Sources

Booklist 100, no. 7 (December 1, 2003): 626.

Harper's Magazine 308, no. 1844 (January, 2004): 75.

The Nation 278, no. 3 (January 26, 2004): 29.

The New Republic 230, no. 12 (April 5, 2004): 33.

The New York Review of Books 51, no. 13 (August 12, 2004): 12.

The New York Times, January 7, 2004, p. E1.

The New York Times Book Review 153 (January 18, 2004): 9.

Time 163, no. 2 (January 12, 2004): 64.

The Washington Post, January 12, 2004, p. CO2.

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