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Times Literary Supplement
Sunday, January 11th, 2004


Absolute Friends

by John le Carré

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.

The 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 to continue".

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 emotion.

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.

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