- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 24, 2004

Well before the U.S. publication of John le Carre’s latest novel, American readers were tipped off about the bombshells it might contain. In Britain, where “Absolute Friends” was released last year, the novelist regularly had anti-American fits during promotional appearances on behalf of the book. The nub of these diatribes was that America is a superpower with imperialist appetites and menacing alliances (read Israel) that pose a threat to civilization. Hardly new invective from Mr. le Carre, who has folded similar rantings into many of his previous novels.

But given the war in Iraq and the ongoing war on terror, it was difficult to approach his book without trepidation. Mr. le Carre is a master of international thrillers. His novels (“The Spy Who Came in From the Cold,” “The Little Drummer Girl” and “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy”) have been phenomenal bestsellers and box office gold. There was every reason to assume that this one, no less than its predecessors, would enthrall, but with what consequences? Would an American’s surrender to its narrative constitute an act of armchair treason?

As it turns out, there was nothing to worry about. The novel is engaging but in the end hardly captivating. And the predictable America-bashing is toothless when not downright tedious. The pity is that “Absolute Friends” was almost a very good book.

The novel’s protagonist is Ted Mundy who, when readers meet him, has fallen on hard times. Reduced to being a tour guide in Germany at one of Mad King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria, he wears a bowler (“more Laurel and Hardy than Savile Row”) that, along with the umbrella he refuses to carry because of its association with Neville Chamberlain, are images of a British establishment past its glory and vulnerable to shame.

Ted himself comes from a mixed birthright, upper class yet not to the manor born, upstanding yet not without skeletons in the closet. Ted Mundy is, in fact, an attractive creation, not quite as compelling or enigmatic as George Smiley but appealing all the same. And the telling of Ted Mundy’s life is one of the most attractive parts of the book.

Born in Lahore, Pakistan, virtually at the moment of partition, Ted is the son of an English infantry officer and an Irish nursemaid who died in childbirth. Ted, who was told that his mother was from Irish aristocracy, will only learn of her true station in life much later and well after he and his father, who was forced to leave India because of scandal, have resettled in England.

Back in England the young Ted misses the early warmth of his childhood caretaker, “a very fat Madrassi ayah who has no name but Ayah” who offered the little boy love and taught him how to recite passages from the Koran. His childhood years in England with a stop in boarding school fly by until the young man, who turns out to be an academic achiever and a good bowler, moves on to Oxford where he studies German. There he meets a “Hungarian spitfire” named Ilse who has come to the university to “expand her understanding of the roots of contemporary anarchism.”

It is the wild 1960s and Ted, on the cusp of adulthood, is perched to assume the role of a ‘60s radical, first in England then in Germany where he meets the crippled son of a German clergyman named Sasha. Mundy and Sasha become “absolute friends” and over the next 30 years, their lives will overlap and unfold in sometimes dangerous ways.

Sasha introduces Ted to spying and then vanishes only to reappear at crucial intervals. Most of Ted’s encounters with the mysterious Sasha happen by chance, and are usually filled with mayhem. They also always include bits of potted political philosophy. Sasha, the firebrand, hopes to change the world and wishes for them to become “perfect spies” in service of his mostly naive dreams. Nevertheless they are wholly believable friends. “Mundy plays Boswell to Sasha’s Johnson and Sancho Panza to his Quixote.”

However, it is Sasha (Mr. le Carre by proxy it would seem) who spouts the anti-American rhetoric and who lures and brings peril into Mundy’s life over time.

In between spying adventures with Sasha, Mundy is recruited by British intelligence to work for them with a cover as an arts educator. Mundy now becomes a double agent and life — as well as the novel — becomes complicated.

Mundy marries, buys a house, has a child and seems to be getting things in order when the strain of his dual existence, not to mention the travel, takes a toll on his marriage. From there begins Mundy’s long spiral down into frustration and poverty.

It is at this point — in real time about the point at which Mundy is forced to act as a tour guide in Bavaria — that Sasha reemerges. Sasha, with ties to a Middle Eastern billionaire of unknown origins named Dmitri, proposes that Mundy should take part in a scheme to establish a “Counter-University” replete with a library of their making.

Here the novel moves from promising complexity to trivializing fluffiness. The characters begin to seem too thin — particularly Dmitri — and Mr. le Carre’s aim is not clear.

Only his enemies are. Coming in for a final apocalyptic comeuppance, the details of which I will not reveal, are the same old le Carre bogeymen: the CIA, Tony Blair, Israel, America and the war on terror. The French, however, are spared: After the novel’s climax, it is noted that “The integrity of France’s fabled thinkers and academics would remain unscathed. A statement by a French presidential spokeswoman to the effect that ‘the entire episode reeked of news manipulation of the most amateurish kind’ was regarded as particularly arrogant. Yet more bottles of French wine were poured down American drains, french fries became Freedom Fries and the Tricolour was ceremoniously burned in Washington.”

In the end, Mr. le Carre leaves little doubt about his politics, but the fiction suffers.

ABSOLUTE FRIENDS

By John le Carre

Little, Brown & Co., $26.95, 400 pages

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