by John le CarrÃ©
Friends of the friends
A review by James M. Murphy
Absolute Friends is the nineteenth novel by John le Carre and his people
are still finding it hard to come in from the cold. This time his story is set
in the real events of our day and fired with his anger at what the American and
British Governments have done to bring them about. But more of that story later.
The "absolute friends" of the somewhat Archeresque title are a predictably
odd couple, predictably destined to pay for the cynical crimes and follies of
others. Tall, English and uncomplicated, Edward (Ted) Mundy is the only child
of a retired British colonial army officer whose last years are spent in befuddled
alcoholic reveries of the Raj. Ted was torn from his happy childhood roots in
Pakistan when sent away to school in England, and despite educational successes,
still bears the stigmata of a sensitive loner.
From Oxford, he migrates to Berlin, and is caught up in a student radicalism
then in its full euphuistic flight. A leading voice in that politicized cantata
belongs to Sasha, small, malformed and burning with a prophet's zeal as well
as gifted with an all-conquering stamina in argument. (We never learn Sasha's
surname, although it must have taken some trouble to avoid mention of it. Perhaps
he stands for the everyman of counterculture, the eternal asylum seeker without
identity documents to his name, or even a name on his documents.) They separate
after a punch-up in which Mundy rescues Sasha from the West German police but
does not escape their clubs himself. (The boys wisely stay clear of the police
at the other end of the U-Bahn, or their story might have ended right there.)
Years later, Mundy runs into his friend again, this time in East Germany. Sasha
is now something or other in the Stasi, but really a double agent for London,
and through him Mundy is signed up by both sides. Their collaboration is a great
success for British Intelligence, but after being demobbed at the end of the
Cold War, Mundy finds his life going downhill: his marriage and his language
school in Heidelberg fail in turn and he winds up as a tour guide supporting
his new Turkish partner and her young son. Sasha, meanwhile, has spent a decade
seeking enlightenment, predictably -- given that it is Sasha -- in places one
is unlikely to find it. He is now an acolyte to Dmitri, a mysterious billionaire
(despite his wealth, also short of a last name) who seeks to establish a "counter
university" to rally opinion against the evils of Americanization, globalization
and related outrages against human dignity. Dmitri seeks Mundy's help to set
up the pilot school in Heidelberg. Although Mundy sensibly thinks there is something
funny about the project, he belongs to the decency party and tends to sympathize
with Dmitri's agitpropositions. He also finds it hard to resist the promise
of solvency and a better life for his lover and her child.
Here, however, a responsible critic must call a halt, lest he compromise what
the author has in store for the reader from this point on. Suffice it to say,
the gun on the mantelpiece is fully loaded and le Carre once more demonstrates
his skill in picking up the pace as his story reaches its climax.
While spies and spying have existed as long as people have realized they need
information that others want to keep from them, the literary genre came into
its own only with the triumph of the modern nation-state and the near-total
wars which that made possible. Early on, spy novels tended to be about heroes
who happened to be spies, rather than vice versa. Richard Hannay, for example,
was a loyal subject doing his duty as a gentleman: he had no more choice in
the matter than Stephen Potter's Gattling-Fenn, driving forward on his mission
for the Crown. With James Bond came a new dispensation: a hero still, but one
who preferred to be seen as doing his job, rather than anything so grand as
his duty. He never recruits an agent or acquires intelligence and rarely maintains
his cover for more than a few pages. But at his side we vicariously enjoy the
pleasure of luxurious accommodation, the company of pliant women and the connoisseurship
of the expense-account life. Here was the spy as a man of fashion.
Spy Who Came in from the Cold appeared as the original Bond issues were
coming to an end -- and by that time, we had all become modernists. We knew
that things were never what they seemed -- indeed, after Picasso, things no
longer even seemed what they were. Long before it had become the mantra of radio
and television newsreading, we all had come to wonder why everyone was lying
to us, and we knew enough to know that anything really worth knowing was probably
secret anyway. The spy perfectly represented the type of modern man David Riesman
had called the "inside dopester": the man whose sophistication is
measured not by how much he knows, but how much he knows that no one else knows.
In such times, the spy comes in to his own, so long as he stays out in the cold.
But espionage is, after all, the supreme conspiracy game, and those who play
it are no more in command of their fate than the rest of us. The spy is a target
for betrayal, even as he goes about his business of encouraging others in the
practice. Indeed, the agent's dilemma is worse than the prisoner's, for there
is no Nash equilibrium in sight; just a pension if you are lucky, exposure or
worse if you are not. This was the dark side of things which le Carre explored
so well. He may have overegged the pudding by having his hero, Alec Leamas,
call his colleagues "a squalid procession of vain fools, traitors . . .
pansies, sadists and drunkards"; after all, most members of SIS and the
Security Services tend to be competent and decent people, as le Carre has acknowledged
at one time or another. But we got his meaning: here was someone matched to
the temper of our times: the hero as fall guy, as casualty of the workplace
-- the spy as victim.
Le Carre's early works were small masterpieces of a genre which he had helped
reinvent, mining the irony of the spy's game and written in the spare, carefully
husbanded prose that focused less on the characters than on what they did for
their strange living. With the end of the Cold War, however, his conflicted
heroes found themselves overmatched in contests with their corrupt masters and
their criminal betters; the enemy were no longer adversaries, fellow players
of the spying trade, but larger-than-life villains almost as demonically ambitious
as those invented by Fleming. The once spare, even sere landscape of LeCarreland
bloomed with an exotic undergrowth of literary description and the tangled roots
of fine writing.
Some will regret that Absolute Friends has not returned to the edged
and compelling style of the early work. Like his recent novels, it favours what
might be called a stream of self-consciousness: instead of witnessing an unfolding
of events, the reader gets the sense of listening to a very long and elaborate
anecdote, told by a confident raconteur who is always calculating the effect
his words are having on his listeners. There is also the fog of gloom and resentment
we have come to expect as the emotional climate in the spy's no man's land.
A faintly dismissive tone -- part mockery, part impatience -- often creeps in
when the author talks about his own characters, much as it does when a parent
speaks of a child who has turned out to be something of a disappointment. The
foam hardens into the shell, as Carlyle puts it, and we are left with an atmosphere
of disaffection, a register of persistent disparagement that does not add to
the realism for being depressing. In literature, it is hard to make tragedy
out of disappointment, even though this happens all the time in life: one must
always watch out lest the angst of dysphoria wind up looking more like a case
of dyspepsia. In short, one can have too much of wryness -- wry asides; wry
love affairs; wry heroism: "Wryness is all", Edgar might say today.
It is this exaggerated self-indulgence peculiar to the spy novel which led Jacques
Barzun years ago to throw up his hands and cry that he had had enough of the
life of wryly.
People who work in Intelligence, says Mundy's SIS handler, do not live in the
real world; they merely visit it from time to time. But the same, of course,
could be said of novelists -- indeed, more truly than of spies, since the former
create a world which does not exist, and then try to seduce us into believing
it. There is no small problem here, as reflected in Plato's reservations about
the dangers of poetry -- that is, fiction -- in the education of the young.
Not so puritan as Plato, we make room for a "literary truth" based
on an understood bargain with the author: we agree to suspend disbelief so long
as he does not try to take advantage of us while we do.
Perhaps with just such a bargain or something like it in mind, le Carre has
sounded a modest note in the past when weighing up his role as author:
A good writer is an expert on nothing except himself. And on that subject,
if he is wise, he holds his tongue . . . nothing that I write is authentic.
It is the stuff of dreams, not reality.
In speaking of Absolute Friends, however, he tells us that although
he set out to entertain, "to give people a good time, a good laugh here
and there", he found himself driven by a "mixture of anger and impatience
. . . and a growing despair" -- the anger, of course, about America's role
in the world and the despair at the readiness of others to support it. As a
result, he wanted to do more than entertain his readers; he "wanted to
confront them with things not easily confronted outside of fiction"
(italics added). In his own words, his story became, "if you will, a piece
of political science fiction about what could happen if we allow present trends
So should one address the science or the fiction on offer here? The former
is the mountain of events "outside of fiction" -- all the facts and
interpretations people are always arguing about. In the end, le Carre does not
confront us with what is happening outside fiction; he merely tells us what
he feels about it. His book aims to be a polemical novel and has been received
-- and no doubt enjoyed -- as such. Its plot turns on a deception designed,
according to the author, "to draw Europe into the American camp".
Such a conspiracy is "the kind of intelligence operation", he assures
us, "which any American intelligence agency and particularly of the neo-conservative
kind might very well contemplate". We are to take his word for it that
this plot device is, in fact, plausible: many, of course, would roundly disagree.
But is not this precisely the kind of question that we must (and do) only confront
outside of fiction, out in the real world where it is posed? It is one thing
to encourage people to suspend disbelief in the interests of story; it is another
to suggest that anything that can be imagined is plausible. Perhaps, in the
end, we can no more have a truly polemical novel than a poetic amendment to
the tax code.
"I have always suspected in the effort to bring into play the extremities
of emotions the debasing touch of insincerity", wrote Joseph Conrad, who
went on to describe the author's problem of balancing his private vision of
a higher truth and his obligation to deal with the world on its own terms:
In order to move others deeply we must deliberately allow ourselves to be
carried away beyond the bounds of our normal sensibility -- innocently enough
perhaps and of necessity, like an actor who raises his voice on the stage
above the pitch of natural conversation . . . . But the danger lies in the
writer becoming the victim of his own exaggeration, losing the exact notion
of sincerity, and in the end coming to despise truth itself as something too
cold, too blunt for his purpose -- as, in fact, not good enough for his insistent
Absolute Friends is not merely another spy story destined for the "Action"
shelf of the local library, although many will ask no more of it than that,
and will have no reason to be dissatisfied with what they get. Le Carre clearly
hopes that this work of imagination will win readers over to his own hostility
towards United States policy, very much as some of the characters in his book
plot a deception operation to woo popular opinion on America's behalf.
Or does he? The imp of the counter-intuitive, in the best traditions of the
spy story, asks if we can take things at face value, if there is not something
more here than meets the eye. It is true that the author's anti-Americanism
is a matter of record. But would not this provide excellent cover to produce
a work whose indictment of the United States so overshoots reasonable levels
of credibility that it undermines the very political message it pretends to
send? Even some reviewers who thrilled to the author's rather courtly indignation
about Blair and Bush have also muttered whether he may have gone over the top
a bit: the word "preposterous" has already floated up from the critical
hubbub. As John le Carre says himself, such doublethink is just the kind of
thing intelligence services get up to. They say these people never really retire.
Who knows: may the Circus have put him up to it?
James M. Murphy
is a retired intelligence officer and a freelance writer on international affairs.