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The New Republic Online
Thursday, April 1st, 2004


 

Absolute Friends

by John le Carré

The Little Drummer Boy

A review by James Wood

I.
Rather as Virgil promised that you could learn how to farm from reading the Georgics, so it must have seemed, at least at first, that you could learn how to spy from reading John Le Carré's early novels. One of the reasons that these well-written thrillers were so enthusiastically mistaken for literary novels was that, like their richer cousins, they opened a new world. Surely this was what good fiction was supposed to do — to make it new? George Smiley (a.k.a. "Control"), Alec Leamas, Peter Guillam, the "Circus" (the headquarters of the British intelligence services), Karla (Smiley's Soviet opponent and nemesis), "Moscow Central": readers fell eagerly on this glum but jazzy exotica, glum because it was intended as the prosaic gray to Ian Fleming's glamorous stripes, but exotic nonetheless because it was still about secret agents. Paradoxically, of course, such detail functioned as fiction but performed as fact: many readers probably concluded that they were encountering the non-fictional truth about contemporary espionage, a sensation nourished by their knowledge of Le Carré's background as a spy and a diplomat in Berlin. Yet much of Le Carré's detail was entirely invented, including the terminology, and there were old intelligence hands who complained that his picture of the service, while intended as an anti-James Bond demystification, was itself a species of romance.

Instead of Bond's easy triumphs, Le Carré presented liberal English muddle, the kind of mutely triumphant failure canonically formulated by George Eliot at the end of Middlemarch, in the famous summation: "But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs." The English spies whom Le Carré wrote about were not exactly committing unhistoric acts; but theirs were hidden lives, lost in the complicated fog of the Cold War. Le Carré's characters were almost willfully unglamorous, closer to Oxford dons or mild headmasters than to political brokers. And no one would ever hear about their sacrifices and their courage, partly because they were naturally secret, and partly because their actual jobs were morally shabbier than the public wanted to know.

The classic Le Carré plot is a masterful exercise in bitter ideological arrest. In The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, a British spy, Alec Leamas, is ordered to penetrate the East German intelligence system by posing as a defector. His job is to bring down Mundt, a hated and murderous Communist espionage chief. But Leamas has been set up by his own people: too late — once he is beyond the Iron Curtain — he realizes that Mundt is a double agent working for the British, and that Leamas's real, but unwitting, task has been to bring down Mundt's ambitious deputy, who was about to expose his chief. Leamas has been left out in the cold; a good man has been sacrificed for the larger "good" of the needs of the intelligence system. The ends justify the means — or do they?

Le Carré has worked several variations on this two-pincer motif. His new novel, while pretending to literary depth, essentially reprises the nullification plot of the earlier thrillers: a British spy, working as a double agent in East Germany, has been friends for years with his Communist counterpart, who in turn has been working for the British. The British spy is asked to perform one last task: to penetrate a shadowy organization, apparently based in Germany, that may be receiving money from Islamic terrorists. Like Leamas, the British spy is set up, left out in the cold by forces willing to sacrifice him to their ideological ends.

Le Carré's radicalism has often been thought to lie in his political complexity. His books are poised, seemingly, on a razor's edge of paradox: his British agents must hold in careful balance their ends and their means; they have loyalty to the human individual but also to large institutions; they are without great ideological fervor, but insofar as they daily oppose the ideological fervor of their Communist counterparts, they necessarily take on some of their enemy's zeal. In Smiley's People, George Smiley, the former head of British intelligence, finally brings down his old foe Karla, the head of Soviet intelligence. But, in a proper twist, he does this only by using Karla's dirty methods: "on Karla has descended the curse of Smiley's compassion; on Smiley the curse of Karla's fanaticism."

But this is not as difficult as it seems, and too often what appears to be paradox is closer to ideological nullification. Le Carré has often been praised for the delicacy with which he portrays the "moral grayness" of the Cold War struggle, not least because his plots have a way of suggesting that the two sides were more alike than either wanted to believe. In fact, instead of analyzing the political complexities of the Cold War, Le Carré's books narrate the functional complexities of the political complexities; that is, they show us, mainly, that the two espionage systems often worked in matching ways. This insight then locks the mazy plots in place, essentially closing the door on further analysis: the two-sided mirror dazzles further curiosity. And so the form of the books tends toward a self-canceling amnesty, each side a little shabbier at the end of the story than it was at the start.

The functional complexity of Le Carré's fictional contraptions actually licenses a flight from political complexity, since the emphasis on means rather than ends — the two sides share the former, but obviously not the latter — allows distinctions in moral and ideological beliefs to slip away. Finally Le Carré has nothing more to report about these great struggles than their ironies. And besides, the English spies are naturally unideological. Ideology is itself a suspicious enthusiasm. There are knotted ironies in Le Carré's work, but they tend to balance each other, to hold each other in arrest. They are nothing like the self-corroding ironies of Conrad's The Secret Agent, a novel that seems to mock both radicalism and conservatism, and then seems to mock its own serpentine pessimisms.

One other reason, then, for the haste with which serious critics have garlanded Le Carré as not just a very good genre writer but also as a genuinely literary novelist may be that his books seem to reproduce on the political level what the great novelists are prized for doing on the human level. The complexity, the ambiguity, the command of moral grayness, the willingness to raise questions rather than answer them — these, at the level of character, are what the liberal humanist novel is supposed to do, and Eliot's peroration at the end of Middlemarch merely wraps a final unfinality around these traditional concerns. Le Carré's thrillers seem so respectable in literary terms, I think, because these concerns are lightly lifted from the shoulders of characters and transferred to the shoulders of actors — agents, spies, functionaries, bureaucrats.

Well, this complexity is not as complex as it seems. But, more than that, the available complexity is further betrayed by the simplicity and the neatness of Le Carré's prose, and by the fact that Le Carré's characters are not characters. They are, precisely, agents — agents of his plots. The prose has a knowing efficiency, which closes off discussion. Le Carré is fond of using what Roland Barthes liked to call the "reference code," that staple of nineteenth-century narration in which an omniscient author makes easy reference to consensual assumptions ("It is a truth universally acknowledged," and so on). In Le Carré's case — as in the case of his great influence, Graham Greene — the reference code is used in debased form, as an adjunct of the kind of knowingness his spies are assumed to possess: "The passport officer was a youngish, little man with an Intelligence Corps tie and some mysterious badge in his lapel. He had a ginger moustache, and a North Country accent which was his life's enemy." The passport officer, glimpsed at London airport as Leamas heads for Berlin, is not seen again. This knowledge about him poses, then, as Leamas's swift, commanding take on the young man (Leamas would notice the Intelligence Corps tie); but in fact the detail about his North Country accent is pure authorial omniscience, of the kind that prompts the restive reader to ask: How do you know this? On what authority do you decide that the man's accent was his "life's enemy"?

In Absolute Friends, a similar moment occurs when the British agent, Ted Mundy, is trying to place the accent of a glamorous aide: "Vassar with a German accent, he decides." A minute later, he is at it again, with another character's voice: "in Mundy's imagination it is sired in the Levant, trained in the Balkans and finished off in the Bronx." Alas, the absurdity of Ted Mundy's pretense to omniscience — this is surely a trope taken directly from the movies — signals the large gap between Le Carré's latest book and the relative novelty of his earliest ones.

Le Carré can write very well. In the passage that precedes Leamas's encounter with the passport officer, he writes that "the airport reminded Leamas of the war: machines, half hidden in the fog, waiting patiently for their masters; the resonant voices and their echoes, the sudden shout and the incongruous clip of a girl's heels on a stone floor; the roar of an engine that might have been at your elbow." This is suggestive, and almost lyrically skewed. More usually, the prose does what it has to do, though often with a nicely chosen word:

Smiley arrived in Hamburg in mid-morning and took the airport bus to the city centre. Fog lingered and the day was very cold. In the Station Square, after repeated rejections, he found an old, thin terminus hotel with a lift licensed for three persons at a time. He signed in as Standfast, then walked as far as a car-rental agency, where he hired a small Opel, which he parked in an underground garage that played softened Beethoven out of loudspeakers.

A glance at the bald-faced illiteracies of a contemporary thriller writer such as David Baldacci suffices to explain why Le Carré is softly treated by literary readers. The "thin" terminus hotel and "softened" Beethoven are delicately done, and the whole passage is elegantly finished; it is the discourse of an educated man rather than the words-by-the-yard offered by contemporary sellers. But it is, all the same, genre-writing. The prose always observes its own conventions rather than revealing anything new, deep, or truthful. The details are merely the quorum necessary to keep the narrative process going; the specificity is essentially bogus (the lift licensed "for three persons," the "small Opel," the garage playing Beethoven) — not because it is false but because, in its very banality, it gestures not toward the unpredictable world but toward the conventions of a certain kind of efficient realism. The prose announces, in effect: "here is what the world generally looks like according to the conventions of realism." It is a civilized style, but nonetheless a slickness unto death.

Hamburg can perhaps get by with a few dabs of detail, but characters cannot. One of the strangest myths about Le Carré is that he is a "superior" genre-writer because he creates "rich characters." One critic has gone so far as to allege that George Smiley is "one of the great creations of modern literature." The New York Times said of The Little Drummer Girl that "it becomes instantly apparent that we are in the hands of a writer of great powers." But again, Le Carré's character portraits are not themselves complex, merely complex relative to the rolled thinness of most characters in contemporary thrillers. And one way Le Carré appears to make his characters complex is by ensuring that they do not think:

Leamas was not a reflective man and not a particularly philosophical one. He knew he was written off — it was a fact of life which he would henceforth live with, as a man must live with cancer or imprisonment. He knew there was no kind of preparation which could have bridged the gap between then and now. He met failure as one day he would probably meet death, with cynical resentment and the courage of a solitary. He'd lasted longer than most; now he was beaten.

This is the tone, and the philosophical posture, inherited from Greene and, further back, from Hemingway, in which what masquerades as thought is actually just the ratification of permissible male reticence. Versions of this male reticence can be found in the work of Robert Stone, and in some of Andre Dubus's stories; it is almost a universal male vernacular. Such characters — "Leamas was not a reflective man" — are, paradoxically, alert but always blocking the ratiocinative consequences of their alertness. Such characters are not minds but just voyeurs of their own obscurities. One thinks of the end of A Farewell to Arms: "He looked very dead. It was raining. I had liked him as well as anyone I ever knew." And that is all we hear on the subject. In such writing, a principled refusal to be sentimental stifles feeling and the description of feeling; and that refusal, in turn, becomes itself somewhat sentimental.

Le Carré's characters, one feels, are mysteries wrapped in enigmas, and therefore not finally interesting as riddles. The enigmatic hangs over their reticence like the brim of a disguising homburg, and this quality is the human counterpart to what they do as spies. One is reminded of Arnold Bennet's contention, with which Virginia Woolf had such play, that Sherlock Holmes was a real and rounded literary character. Woolf was right to point out that, in any deep sense, Holmes is just a "sack filled with straw." He functions perfectly, vividly indeed, within the modest requirements of his genre, which is why his characteristics barely change. Le Carré has said that George Smiley changes over the course of the several books in which he appears, but in truth his character remains exactly the same, and is limited to two or three essential elements: he is calm, he is donnish, he is gently crafty. The essential scandal of George Smiley never alters: it is that he approaches international espionage with the modest, pedantic decency of the Oxford common room. The disjunction between him and his world is what is shocking; he himself is relatively unimportant. The adverbs that unvaryingly accompany his speech in Smiley's People betray his one-dimensionality: "Smiley suggested helpfully ... said Smiley with great gentleness ... Smiley said from far inside his thoughts ... said Smiley deprecatingly ... Smiley had the wisdom to keep silence ... replied equably ... objected mildly ... Smiley put in gently ... Smiley waited ... Smiley offered no comment ... Smiley offered no answer ... Smiley seemed curiously unconcerned ... Smiley said, with an apologetic smile."

Yes, we think, as we encounter him, Smiley was indeed destined to be incarnated by the shyly smiling Alec Guinness, but this does not mean that he is a complicated literary creation. He is, rather, a fine example of the primitive novelistic character who most benefits from the actor's transfiguring embodiment.

II.
Character, and the lack of depth, are important elements in the failure of Le Carré's latest book. Superficially, the novel is very different from the kind of work that founded the writer's reputation. It is an ample, indeed garrulous 455 pages, and ranges across thirty years in the lives of the friends who give the book its title. One of them is Ted Mundy, a well-born, boarding school-educated Oxford dropout, who turns up in Berlin in 1969 to join a student commune. He gets involved in political resistance; though, in proper English (and Le Carré) fashion, he has no very fierce ideology. He is simply one of those people on whom life imposes its fateful patterns, a mirror rather than a lamp. One of the reasons for his political involvement is his new friendship with Sasha, a brilliant and voluble German agitator, a Cohn-Bendit type, flushed with ideology and newfound sexual power. Mundy saves Sasha's skin during a march, and gets nastily beaten by the German police in the process. He earns Sasha's deepest loyalty.

Mundy returns to England, though not before attracting the attention of Nicholas Amory, a British diplomat-spy in Berlin. It is the late 1970s. In London, Mundy marries, and starts working for the British Council, an organization whose job is to promote British culture overseas. During a trip to East Germany, in which Mundy is accompanying a young troupe of Shakespeare actors, he is surreptitiously approached by his old friend Sasha, who has a story to tell. Sasha has gone over to the East Germans, but has quickly soured on their ideological promises, and has turned traitor: he is working as a double agent, leaking valuable East German secrets to the West. And he wants to recruit Mundy as a double agent: Mundy will appear to be working for the East Germans while actually taking information from Sasha and handing it back to London. It has all been approved by Nick Amory, Sasha's contact in West Berlin. As Le Carré writes: "A classic Cold War double agent operation is taking its first cautious steps towards consummation." So classic, indeed, that Le Carré has written and rewritten the same story, the same consummation, several times.

But Le Carré wants his novel to be a deep portrait of Mundy, which means that there is much dawdling retrospect. Generally, whenever Le Carré is dealing with elements of Cold War espionage the writing tautens, takes on informational muscle, and proceeds happily. But the parts of the book closest to conventional literary narration are reliably the weakest. Part of this has to do with a fateful decision to narrate the book in the present tense, always a risky choice, since it is natural to think of narrated stories as having already happened rather than as entities being created in front of the reader on the page. Le Carré compounds this awkwardness with a peculiar jaunty comedy, something approaching the mock-heroic. It is an attempt, one suspects, to tell the story in Mundy's voice, but still it seems freakish:

Flat years, frustrating years, years of directionless wandering are about to blight the progress of Ted Mundy, life's eternal apprentice. He later thinks of them as his Empty Quarter, though in number they amount to less than a decade.... Airborne once more, Mundy drifts between dream and reality. Rome, Athens, Cairo, Bahrain and Karachi receive him without comment and pass him on.

The idle, tuneless repetition of "years" in the first sentence, and those arch phrases "life's eternal apprentice" and "receive him without comment and pass him on": these flowery clichés are a long way from the pondered calm of the early books. Stranger still, Le Carré has become one of those writers who has apparently never met an adverb or adjective he did not like: "Summoned at darkest night to the Surrey villa, a bereft Mundy cradles his father's sweated head and watches him spew out the remaining fragments of his wretched life." Or: "Safely back in his college rooms, a trembling Mundy takes stock of his humble patrimony." Or: "'Tell him I sent you,' she implores, as the train mercifully pulls out." This is dismal prose, cartoonishly slack. And there are odd slips: Mundy, though he was born in 1948, uses the quaint imprecation "My hat!," which was last commonly used by the generation preceding Mundy's; a northerner is said to use the word "geezer" (surely a Cockneyism); and the owner of the accent thought to have been sired in the Levant and finished off in the Bronx uses the English word "arsehole" only to use the American word "ass" five pages later. Le Carré has said that he wrote The Spy Who Came In From the Cold in six weeks. Absolute Friends also seems rushed at times.

It is hard for a character of any great interest to sprout from this shallow prose. And besides, Mundy does not really have a personality so much as a negative one; he is acted upon, a passive picaro. He falls into espionage without any great ideological cause. Le Carré suggests that Mundy's friendship with Sasha is the real spur — that the individual, at least for the Englishman, trumps doctrine. This is "absolute friendship," perhaps.

All this is plausible enough until the last third of the book. Time has moved on. The Wall has come down, Sasha has disappeared, and Mundy no longer works for British intelligence but lives a decent if down-at-heel life in Germany, where he works as a tour guide in one of King Ludwig's Bavarian castles. The first Gulf war occurs, and then the second. Without warning, Sasha appears again in Mundy's life, with another proposal. He is now working for a brilliant, shadowy entrepreneur, a kind of sinister negative of George Soros, the founder of an organization dedicated to opposing globalization, American hegemony, the meekness of the press, and the recent war in Iraq. Mundy agrees to meet him. The novel absconds from the plausible and enters the movies, as Mundy is driven by Jeep, at night, towards a wooded fortress manned and womanned by sterile, impassive aides, including the one whose speech is apparently "Vassar with a German accent." The billionaire weirdo may or may not be called Dimitri. He is the owner of the accent that Mundy imagined to be sired in the Levant. This man wants to set up what he calls a Counter-University, with branches around Europe, dedicated to an "Arms Race for Truth." He already has Sasha; now he wants Mundy on board.

Mundy is tempted. This Dimitri speaks a great deal of sense. He thinks the war to oust Saddam was "an old Colonial oil war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty, and it was launched by a clique of war-hungry Judeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America's post-Nine Eleven psychopathy." Mundy agrees. Earlier, he had told Sasha that the recent war had made him sick. And Sasha agrees. "The most necessary in history," he sardonically intones, "the most moral and Christian — and the most unequal?"

These opinions are also shared by Le Carré, who has written ferociously against the British-American mission. Irrespective of whether one agrees or disagrees with Le Carré's position, it is clearly a little convenient, not to say hectoring, to have all three main characters so happily agreeing with one other. It might have been wise to have introduced here, if not a Counter-Counter University, then at least a Counter-Counter Opinion expressed by someone. Forget negative capability: why has Le Carré's vaunted "complexity" so swiftly departed the scene? The delicate eye for grayness, the mind that so happily balanced one side against the other and showed them to be as much alike as opposed — where has it gone? The Cold War, it turns out, was a vast sea of gray, but the last Iraq war, by contrast, was just a splash of obvious black and white.

And there is a further difficulty. Ted Mundy, unlike the zealous Sasha, has never been ideological, nor even very political — until now. In over thirty years of deeply political maneuvering, the only thing he is shown to get truly worked up about is the Iraq invasion. Well, that is not quite true. In a hasty piece of retroactive mortising, Le Carré tells us that Mundy's ire has been building ever since the Falklands War:

He'd weathered Thatcher and the Falklands. He'd watched British schoolchildren display the Churchillian spirit, bawl "Rule Britannia!" at hastily commissioned cruise liners and decrepit naval destroyers with the mothballs still rattling inside them sailing away to free the Falklands. He'd been ordered by our Leaderene to rejoice at the sinking of the Belgrano. He'd nearly vomited. He was case-hardened.

Le Carré goes on to say that Mundy remembered, as a boy, the ill-fated Suez campaign, only to discover that the government, "then, as now, had lied in its teeth about its reasons for taking us to war." So why, Mundy asks himself, get so angry about this latest escapade if the lies of politicians are nothing new?

It's old man's impatience coming on early. It's anger at seeing the show come round one too many times.... It's the discovery, in his sixth decade, that half a century after the death of empire, the dismally ill-managed country he'd done a little of this and that for is being marched off to quell the natives on the strength of a bunch of lies, in order to please a renegade hyperpower that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment.

This is a revealing yell. First, we surely hear Le Carré breaking in and talking over his character; the passage has the noisy, spreading wail of a personal complaint. (Le Carré has not denied this in interviews.) Second, its illogicality is striking. Britain, it seems, is convicted of fighting three colonial wars — Suez, the Falklands, and Iraq (that phrase "quell the natives" is wildly imprecise about all three involvements, but let it pass for the moment). The Falklands War is the bolt that allows Mundy/Le Carré to make a troika of the three adventures. And it is surely the Falklands War that betrays the extent to which Le Carré's anti-Americanism would seem to have little to do with scruples about "quelling the natives" and actually a great deal to do with shame at the diminishment of British power.

The Falklands War of 1982 is easy to mock: a few rocks six thousand miles away from home; a belligerent Thatcher; a rickety navy that had to scramble civilian boats in order to muster its armada; a morally questionable decision to sink an Argentinian boat, the Belgrano. But surely it was different from Suez and Iraq. The armada was launched in response to an invasion of the islands by Argentinian forces; the inhabitants of the islands, none of them Argentinian, wanted to remain British; and the Argentinians were at that time ruled by a brutal fascist junta. Thatcher's little war reversed the invasion and — curiously unimportant to Ted Mundy, the former spy — brought about the downfall of the Argentinian junta. Mundy/Le Carré does not even have his facts straight: Thatcher did not ask the nation to rejoice at the sinking of the Belgrano; she asked it to rejoice at the re-taking of the first island, South Georgia, by British marines, which happened before the sinking of the Belgrano.

The political analysis is morally hazy. But what is interesting is what seems most to enrage Mundy/Le Carré: not the colonial nature of the Falklands War, but the shame of the once-great Churchillian spirit being wheeled out again for such an obvious whimper of a conflict. It is not the rightness or the wrongness of the action that seems to engage Mundy, but its post-imperial aesthetics — the "hastily commissioned cruise liners and decrepit naval destroyers." Likewise, in the Iraq war, what seems to gall is the shame, "half a century after the death of empire," that this "dismally ill-managed country" is being pushed around by the great American parvenu. This is not politics at all, and it is certainly very far from political "complexity." It represents the perfect fusion of imprecise leftism (all three wars somehow being about "quelling the natives") and imprecise rightism (what a shame that Britain is no longer properly "Churchillian").

Absolute Friends ends in a coarse outburst of anti-Americanism. Mundy's involvement with Dimitri's sinister organization attracts the notice of his former handlers, who approach him with an offer: they want him to penetrate Dimitri's Counter-University, which seems to be getting its money from Saudi Arabia, and tell them what he discovers. Mundy agrees to it. But it is a setup. Absurdly, Sasha and Mundy die in a hail of bullets as a band of American stormtroopers gun them down in a Heidelberg street. The killing was planned, it is later revealed, to make an example of people who dabble with quasi-terrorist organizations, and to enable the American authorities to claim a victory on European soil in the "war on terrorism." "What goes for the terrorists in Iraq sure as hell goes for terrorists in Heidelberg," a "senior US defense official" is quoted as saying.

The ludicrous extraneousness of this dénouement, its lack of any organic connection to the preceding three hundred pages, is the formal counterpart to the peculiarity that Mundy's only real ideological fixation as an adult seems to have been George W. Bush's policy in Iraq. The fixation is quite literally an irruption, and the irruption breaks the book into two. "I only ever cared about the man ... I never gave a fig for the ideologies," George Smiley once said. Le Carré, in this humanly implausible and ideologically enraged novel, appears to give a fig for neither.


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