Absolute Friends John le Carré (2004)

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

For three quarters of its length this is the best, the most compelling, gripping and psychologically rewarding le Carré novel for years: for excitement and plausibility I would recommend this one over all its predecessors as far back as A Perfect Spy. It is a return to the full-blown world of Cold War spying, but now continued on into the more uncertain, violent and scary post-9/11 world and also, for the first time in his fiction, gives a real sense of age and frailty and remorse.

Then bizarrely, right at the end, it turns into a rant against George Bush, Tony Blair and the US invasion of Iraq, our heroes get assassinated by the wicked, imperialist Americans and the whole thing is covered up in a finale that’s reminiscent of 1970s conspiracy thrillers, only without the style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like another channeling of le Carré’s own lifestory. Like the author, the main protagonist Ted Mundy is brought up by a braggart father – this version is a British Army Major who stays on into post-Independence Pakistan, all bristling patriotism and military lingo, his mother having died in childbirth. When his father is cashiered from the Army in the 1950s, young Ted returns with him to grey, rainy England and, like the young JLC, is packed off to a succession of boarding schools which he hates, before – like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional iteration to Berlin (the author went to study in Basel in Switzerland).

As with A Perfect Spy, the closer le Carré is to his own life, the more grounded the text and the language feel. Granted the entire childhood in Pakistan, the food and Muslim prayers and Urdu words for things, are not directly autobiographical, but the product of research – nonetheless, the feelings of being puzzled, isolated, seeking escape from a childhood world which is both smothering and the only support he knows, are powerfully conveyed and give the novel more psychological conviction than its four or five predecessors.

The plot

At Oxford Ted had taken a lover (le Carré heroes are never short of women, they luxuriate in an atmosphere of prolonged sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is a defining characteristic of these books). Strident young Ilse introduces him to sex and radical politics, packing him off to Berlin with a letter of introduction to the city’s top student radical, Sasha (we never learn his last name).

‘Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha.’ (p.58)

Of course they do – just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel. Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but – like all le Carré leading men – the happy ‘conqueror’ of numberless women, and the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

For the first time in five or six novels, there were scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary or what total rotters they are. These scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped by being set among foreigners who don’t end each sentence ‘old boy’, and therefore sound like normal people, not the self-regarding ‘legends’ of Eton or Harrow or Shrewsbury who populate his other post-1990s novels.

Ted enjoys free sex with, inevitably, the most beautiful and aloof of the many beautiful young women in the squat, there’s sticking up posters calling for the workers to overthrow the system etc, and then there’s a big demonstration in which 6-foot-tall Ted a) rescues Sasha from a beating by the police b) is himself arrested, soundly beaten, handed over to the British Consulate and deported.

Time passes during which Ted does not resume his degree at Oxford but tries various life experiments – and the narrative gives a good sense of the confidence and open horizons to be found in the early 1970s. Ted teaches at schools (he has affair with one of the other master’s wives, natch), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (has affair with a painter’s wife, natch), tries his hand as a radio reporter and newspaper journalist, before drifting back to London and getting a homely little job at the British Council. He also lowers his sights from artists and free spirits and falls in love with a practical young woman, Kate, teacher in a local state school (that is, not a fee-paying boarding school – crikey, there are a few around, apparently) who also happens to be an activist in the local Labour Party.

In his new British Council role he is tasked with accompanying a youth theatre group across north Europe and then around the Eastern bloc countries. This meandering account all leads up to the seismic moment when Ted is hailed by Sasha backstage in an Eastern European capital. Yes, Sasha! Quickly Sasha makes a rendezvous with Ted at which he tells the incredulous Englishman what’s happened to him in the decade since the glory years in Berlin. Briefly, he was lured by radical colleagues to cross the Wall into the East where he was at first interrogated and grilled in the notorious ‘White Hotel’ interrogation centre, and then, finally, rehabilitated, on condition that he becomes a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

By the time of this backstage meeting Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as red fascists. He had begun copying incriminating documents and building up an archive of the State’s criminality against the long-awaited day, far in the future, when the communist regime will collapse. Then he is amazed to see his friend’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha wants to spy for the West. He has access to files and documents and information all of which he will give to the West, for nothing, just out of anger and hatred of the regime. Ted doesn’t know what to think, and has the latest of many out-of-body experiences he has throughout the novel when he finds himself out of his depth. However, Sasha stipulates that he will only hand these goodies over to Ted, in person, no-one else. To manage this, Sasha explains, to cement their bond, Ted must offer himself as a spy to his Stasi masters. This will provide the perfect excuse for their meetings.

Ted becomes a spy

Sasha even explains to Ted who to get in touch with when he gets back to the West, a drawling upper class Intelligence officer in West Berlin, Nicholas Amory, who becomes his case officer. Ted now undergoes training in a) how to collect Sasha’s information b) how to present himself as a candidate for recruitment by the Stasi, not being too earnest, playing hard to get, then ultimately giving in and agreeing to become a double agent.

This central part of the novel is familiar territory for le Carré, but fascinating nonetheless. His classic spy novels from the 1960s and 70s emphasised the human cost of the trade and this is no different. Ted has married Kate and they have a young son, Jake, but all of them find it wearing to cope with Ted’s more and more frequent trips to Eastern Europe, ostensibly attending conferences promoting British Culture, but in every instance a) pretending to the Stasi that he has vital espionage material to feed Sasha b) in fact collecting and transporting back Sasha’s top secret information to us. The narrative makes a deal out of the multiple versions of himself Ted has to navigate: Mundy One, his ‘true self’, Mundy two the British spy, Mundy three the pretend Stasi spy. Throw in playing the roles of good father and dutiful husband, and you have a very confused public schoolboy, who wishes he could just go and play cricket. I found the narrative’s portrayal of this slightly hallucinatory sense of managing multiple selves, very convincing.

Amidst all the spying Ted is introduced by Amory to a shaggy, tall, comfortable American, who interviews him in depth over a number of days, and who he grows to like, one Orville J. Rourke (‘call me Jay’), whose dear old mother, like Ted’s, is of Irish descent. Then one day he’s gone, without goodbye or anything. Amory explains that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (ie the CIA) and passed clean. Good for him.

Over the years Ted and Kate drift apart. She finds herself promoted within the Labour Party and put forward as the PLP candidate for her home town of Doncaster, which requires her to move up there, along with Jake. Because of his work Ted remains in London, and is often abroad anyway. The inevitable happens and, some years later, they have a summit meeting where Kate announces she’s leaving him, for a shadowy man in the background, Philip, something to do with the shiny New Labour Project. (Le Carré, who gives every sign of loathing Tony Blair, is heavily sarcastic about Kate and her steady rise in the New Labour hierarchy).

What rings most true from these sequences is Ted’s heartfelt sorrow at missing out on his son’s childhood, sadly meeting up with the teenage Jake and realising he is a stranger to him.

Then one day they all find themselves watching on TV the Berlin Wall being hammered to the ground, while the East German police look on in bemusement. Ted has a moment of concern for his friend Sasha, liable to be lynched by the mob in the anti-Stasi reprisals; and then panic for himself, as he realises his own Stasi file, proclaiming him a communist spy, might be published. But it doesn’t happen…

The present

All le Carré’s post-Cold War novels start in media res, ie in the middle of the complete sequence of events they describe. After establishing the situation in ‘the present’, they then go back to explain the often long and convoluted backstories which led up to this moment. Thus Absolute Friends opens soon after the Allied invasion of Iraq (March-May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again. Having lost his family in England around the same time the Cold War ended and his career as a spy came to an abrupt end, he returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

As ‘the present’ opens this school has shut down, bankrupted by the possibly criminal activities of his business partner Egon, and Ted has drifted down to Munich, where he has fluked a job as an English-speaking tour guide to one of the castles of mad King Ludwig of Bavaria, giving chummy, unfunny lectures to bemused tourists.

He has also fallen in love with a poor Muslim immigrant, Zara, who approached him one night in a bar offering to prostitute herself. The decent public schoolboy and soldier’s son in him turns this down and insists on buying her a nutritious dinner. She is victim of an arranged marriage made back in Pakistan to a man who turned out to be a crook and wife beater, and who smashed out her front teeth among other assaults, before being arrested and sent to prison. Now she prostitutes herself to support her proud little son, Mustafa.

Ever one for a lost cause (and leaking a fair bit of sentimentality), Ted becomes her protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the significance of having had Ted born and raised in Pakistan. It makes him sympathetic to Muslim culture, it makes him ready to be taken along by Zara and Mustafa to their impoverished mosque in the backstreets of Munich, it contributes to his anger at the short-sighted stupidity of the Allies for invading Iraq on a trumped-up pretext.

But the description of his childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving. And above all, it is a relief not to be among the braying diplomats and their bitchy wives who have dominated JLC’s past few novels. It feels a little bit like actual modern life, in its poverty and anxiety and multi-cultural confusion. And it feels like an achievement for le Carré to have reached beyond the bubble of his age and class and grasped that.

The counter-university

This brings us to the final act. Out of the blue Ted gets a letter from his old comrade in arms, Sasha, who makes his third great interference in Ted’s life. This time, when they meet, Sasha introduces him to a mad new scheme: there is a secretive billionaire who is so incensed at the West’s invasion of Iraq, and by the stranglehold the new, more virulent military-industrial complex is exerting over all aspects of Western media, culture and education, that he has a magic plan at hand – he wants to set up a Counter-University, which will provide a safe space for voices speaking out against the Complex to be heard, for alternative discourses and theories to flourish.

Sasha drives Ted out to an aircraft-hanger sized barn in the countryside outside Munich, where they transfer to a 4-by-4 driven by a stern female operative, and then up hill and through a maze of forests and valleys to a remote mansion. It is like a James Bond lair, immaculate and clean in every detail, and Sasha leaves Ted to be processed by several sets of slick young receptionists and security guards before being admitted to the vast room of Mr Big, who turns out to be a tracksuited, twinkly old man of 70, who gives his name as Dimitri and delivers a long monologue about the evils of the US military-industrial complex. He outlines his plans to set up the Counter-University and even produces a reading list of the kinds of books they should be teaching, a list which could come straight from the pages of the Guardian:

  • Naomi Klein
  • Arundhati Roy
  • George Monbiot
  • Mark Curtis
  • John Pilger
  • Noam Chomsky
  • Joseph Stiglitz
  • Susan George

I’ve read articles or books by all of these authors and even attended lectures by some of them. I am broadly sympathetic to their views, but I found le Carré’s decision to promote their views via the mouth of a wizened, old James Bond-style villain, bizarre.

‘I am speaking of something even more important to the development of western society than the ballot box. I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or State manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrums that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor fuck of a student.’ (p.276)

In the fiction, Ted is driven back to his flat where he agrees the whole deal with Sasha, but the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, to find it full of farm equipment, and on up to the James Bond mansion in the forest, only to find it stripped and bare. Spooky! Stumbling back through the woods he is aggressively captured by a large force of armed and trigger-happy Austrian security police, stripped, hooded, bundled into a jeep and interrogated before it all comes to a halt with the reappearance of Jay, the CIA man from years before.

Jay reveals to Ted that they have their eyes on Dimitri and have traced his money back to Riyadh. The Saudis. Muslims, Ted. Has it crossed Ted’s mind that Dimitri might not be a peace-loving philanthropist but part of the new web of anti-Western terrorists spreading around the world?

Ted is cleaned up and dropped home where he is paid another visit by his old MI6 minder Nick Amory. For the first time since Ted’s known him, Nick is himself at a loss and puzzled. He reveals MI6’s uncertainty about Dimitri’s background and motives: is it to found a grand new liberal university in the venerable university city of Heidelberg? Or is that the facade for some evil ‘spectacular’ like blowing the city up?

And Nick tells Ted that Jay is no longer with ‘the Company’; he’s been a freelance advising the big US corporations for four years or more. So whose interests does he have at heart? Ted is right to feel confused, and the reader along with him. Thirty pages from the end he gets Zara and Mustafa onto a plane back to Turkey, to attend her sister’s wedding, glad to have them out of the way of whatever happens next.

The shoot-out

What happens next is Ted drives to the big, empty school building where he’s made an appointment to meet Sasha. Sasha is late. After a few drinks, Ted takes a jemmy and opens the crates of books which have started arriving as preparation for the big new university and are piled up in the big main hall. Sure enough, he finds lots of books on philosophy etc, but then some on how to make home-made bombs, tips on arson, and then some crates full of hand grenades and guns. Alright.  OK. In a very cinematic moment he sits back in the armchair in the big unlit atrium of the schoolhouse staring at the pile of cracked-open crates in utter silence, wondering what the hell he’s got himself into.

Then he hears the moan of a motor car, a screech of brakes and all hell breaks loose – the doors and windows are smashed in by black-clad US Special Forces firing machine guns in all directions and letting off small explosions. Ted runs to the stairs and stumbles up them despite being hit in leg and shoulder, and makes it up to the attic where he swings open the skylight, looking down into the road in time to see Sasha being shot to pieces outside, at which point half a dozen SWAT troops burst in after him followed by a balaclava-ed, tall, shaggy guy with a smooth Boston accent – God, it’s Jay! – who takes careful aim with a sniper’s rifle and shoots Ted through the head.

The cover-up

Exactly as in The Constant Gardener a) the hero is killed by the forces of evil b) le Carré embarks on an elaborate explanation of how a completely fictional cover story is manufactured by the State and media c) one good man speaks out and is stifled.

It is given out that US forces only just managed to prevent a major terrorist atrocity right in the heart of Germany. Huge stockpiles of ammunition and guides to terrorism were seized and two of the hardened terrorists shot dead but not before an intense firefight. Ted’s life is completely rewritten to make him look like an embittered loser who has turned to Islamic radicalism (even marrying one of them, goddamit) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasis spy and failed radical. We learn that Dimitri was a conman and actor hired to deceive both Sasha and Ted, who has taken a big payoff and retired to the States. We learn that Zara was arrested on arrival in Ankara and is being tortured until she corroborates the official story. We learn that a high-ranking British official published a ‘true’ account of Mundy’s life on an anonymous website (this would be Nick Amory), an account which was comprehensively rubbished by the powers-that-be and gullible journalists – always easily impressed by the glamorous world of ‘intelligence’.

And the motive behind this elaborate and murderous scam? Germany had refused to join the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ which invaded Iraq. This entire incident and the deaths of Sasha and Ted were engineered to terrify German public opinion, helped along by paid articles from America-friendly journalists, designed to bring pressure to bear on the German Chancellor to fall into line with US foreign policy. The American military-industrial hyperpower which, in le Carré’s view, has gone mad, and is undermining the whole world.


A spot of biography

Le Carré’s father, on the evidence of his own interviews and the recent biography, was a world class con-man, who gathered round him gangs of collaborators and conspirators who all agreed with the Chief and supported his mad schemes. Within this small world, tightly knit by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy all the adult characters around him seemed larger than life figures, with superhuman qualities.

This sense of a small, claustrophobic world in which everyone is a legend to everyone else is one of the hallmarks of le Carré’s fiction. A Perfect Spy is a great novel because it has the force of a barely fictionalised recap of le Carré’s odd childhood; the same sense of a magic circle of large-than-life characters is strongly felt in Single & Single where the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single lords it over his gang, and in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator is always an interloper in these secret worlds, the outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma: thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays the slick arms dealer Chief.

As part of his odd childhood, the young le Carré was packed off to a series of boarding schools where he encountered another self-enclosed, self-regarding world full of ‘legendary’ masters and ‘fabled’ young stars of the cricket pitch or concert hall or whatever. From which he progressed to Oxford University – not backward in promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status – and then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (possibly the most famous school in the world) on to the Intelligence Service, another inward-looking organisation, also not slow to lionise its leading lights, such as good old Kim Philby, solid chap.

This background, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which concerns itself with small groups of figures who all regard each other as legends and stars. The Constant Gardener is ostensibly about criminality in the worldwide pharmaceutical industry and takes the hero, the Old Etonian Justin Quayle from Africa to Italy, Germany, Switzerland, Canada and back in his quest for the truth. But in his mind he never leaves – and the narrative never really shakes free from – the small number of People Like Us in the Nairobi High Commission, their secrets and lies, all conveyed in dialogue dripping with the privileged slang and superior attitude of their gilded circle.

Use of the word ‘our’ in the fiction of John le Carré

Thus, in these later novels, all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’, larger-than-life super-characters who simply everyone knows, darling. This verbal habit is like a chummy arm round the shoulder of the reader pushing you to buy into these cliquey circles, an over-familiar embrace which his fans eagerly welcome or don’t notice, but which this reader, for one, coldly resists.

It also explains why le Carré has a funny relationship with the word ‘our’. ‘Our’ is a ‘possessive determiner’ (according to linguistics) which, when used factually, simply conveys that something belongs to two or more people, one of whom is me. Our car, our house, our country.

But in le Carré’s hands it is used in a number of ways to compel the reader into the myth-making world of his ‘legendary’ characters, to pressure the reader into seeing things his, and their, way, to acquiescing in their overblown heroic status and the generally bombastic mind-set which surrounds them.

Thus JLC characters are regularly over-sold as ‘our’ hero this, ‘our very own’, ‘our dear old’ so and so. I noticed it prominently throughout this text:

… our own dear Neville Chamberlain… our beloved British monarchy… Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator… our poor King Ludwig… our recently appointed misanthrope…

It is part of the general tone of smothering, over-familiar, hugger-muggerness, the sense that you are being jostled and coerced in with a gang of upper-class twits who you would normally cross the road to avoid, which can make reading his novels feel more like an endurance test than a pleasure.

He uses the word ‘our’ to do a number of things:

  1. to be vastly patronising – ‘our dear old queen’, conveying a sense that ordinary people like the Queen but you and I, dear boy, ha ha, we are so much more sophisticated and worldly wise, eh – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148)
  2. appropriating historical or eminent figures to our cause or discourse, while simultaneously looking down on them – ‘our poor King Ludwig..’ (p.18)
  3. to pour scorn and derision on political leaders – ‘Bush and Blair, our two great war leaders…’
  4. to dismiss serious characters and issues with mock affection – ‘When our Dear Führer came to power..’ (p.75) ‘… our dear Führer’s old Olympic stadium..’ (p.147) ‘our gallant British forces liberating the imperilled Suez Canal..’ (p.2550
  5. to conceal anger beneath mockery – ‘As a young woman she [Sasha’s mother] was of course repeatedly raped by our victorious Russian liberators’ (p.78) Referring to the Stasi interrogation centre in East Germany – ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)
  6. to puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’ ; one of the teenage actors is ‘Lexham our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)
  7. mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)
  8. normal standard ‘our’ – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)
  9. ‘our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – ‘our Kate’ is how Kate’s dad always refers to her (p.204)
  10. Most of all for a self-mocking exaggeration of his own characters, as if the whole novel is a witty in-joke among public school People Like Us:
  • Ulrike our moral angel, our leading leftist, high priestess of the Alternative Life… (p.83)
  • Sasha our charismatic orator, our coming man for the leader’s throne, our Quasimodo of the social genesis of knowledge… (p.90)
  • Sasha our charismatic Socrates.. (p.119)
  • Sasha the great double agent (p.264)

This kind of pompous, overblown mockery stands in for analysis throughout the book. What underlies all its forms is the breezily arrogant superiority of the true public school article, the upper class disdain for the ordinary view, for normal phrasing.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name the character, but repeatedly to blow him up to mock-heroic proportions. We see and hear a lot of Ted’s thoughts and actions, but the narrator also overblows and mocks him in a series of comic, third-person cartoons as if he was a cardboard cutout of a human being:

  • First thing in the morning the chaste English boarding-school boy and as yet unbruised recruit to the cause of world liberation springs forth from his field bed… (p.71)
  • The good soldier is not fazed… The aspiring novelist likes to spread his notebook… (p.72)
  • ‘Ted Mundy, life’s eternal apprentice…’ (p.100)
  • ‘the former head prefect and cricketing hero signs up with a rural preparatory school…’ (p.106)

Why describe a character’s emotions when you can big him up with bombastic, if self-mocking, grandiosity?

Like boarding school

So many English public school-educated writers seem never to escape their childhood, with the result that almost everything around them reminds them of their dear old alma mater:

  • Teddy tends to announce himself ‘in his best head prefect voice’ (p.63)
  • Life in Berlin begins ‘for the chaste English boarding-school boy’ (p.71)
  • Those students who don’t leave the squat in summer are ‘like uncollected children in a boarding school’ (p.73)
  • When Ted meets his MI6 controller, his first thought is ‘whether Amory is one of the prefects who beat him in the washroom.’ (p.97)
  • as he starts his career as a spy Ted is so scared ‘it’s like opening the bowling for the public schools at Lords every time…’ (p.225)
  • ‘To Mundy they look more like cricket umpires than removal men.’ (p.331)
  • When he puts her on the plane to Turkey, Zara clings so tight to Mundy, that ‘he imagines she is his daughter and he is sending her off to boarding school against her will.’ (p.345)

Is that really the most powerful comparison the text can think up for a terrified woman clinging to her only security in the world? This continual drawing of the wider world back into the bubble of upper-class English public school experiences, slang and attitudes, has a reductive effect on the imagination. Although the narrative travels widely across Europe, the breadth of the subject matter is fighting an often losing battle against the narrowing impact of the mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realise that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geo-political ‘Issue’. (It reminds me a little of Charles Dickens’s early plan to write a novel about each of the vices, starting with Hypocrisy in Martin Chuzzlewit and then Pride in Dombey and Son, before quietly dropping it.)

  • The Night Manager – international arms trade
  • Our Game – not clear
  • The Tailor of Panama – US intervention in Latin America
  • Single & Single – City institutions laundering money for the wicked (here, Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower run riot (America)

The big issue this long fiction leads up to is the alleged stranglehold on Western culture, education and media exercised by a new, all-pervading and toxic American military-industrial complex. ‘If you tell a big lie long enough everyone will believe it,’ he has Sasha yell at Ted – ‘and then anybody who speaks out against it can be labelled mad.’ Dimitri has a long speech about the evil of Bush and Blair, the wickedness of their war, the stifling of free speech. Ted nods his acquiescence.

Does it matter that a thriller contains or ends on some kind of political message? Not necessarily, no. Len Deighton’s Bernard Samson novels contain references throughout to the wickedness of the East German state, without denting the novels’ plausibility because the thought is integrated into the narrative. Similarly, Robert Harris’ terrifying bestseller Fatherland contains harrowing indictments of the Nazi régime, but the indictment is wholly integrated into the plot – and the seamlessness of that integration is a large part of the reason it is so satisfying as a novel. Martin Cruz Smith’s novels manage to be very exciting but at the same time to shed light on the repressive nature of the countries and systems he is depicting (Russia, Cuba). Even a comedy like Tom Sharpe’s Wilt On High can end on a page-long diatribe against the madness of nuclear weapons and not be damaged by it because it arises naturally out of the plot (and is all the more effective because Sharpe and his character Wilt are on the whole right wing and ridicule lefty politics).

But it fails in this case because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes incandescent after the invasion of Iraq. Just before this novel was published he wrote an opinion piece in the Times newspaper, The United States of America Has Gone Mad (link below) which I found embarrassing in its strident simple-mindedness.

If I was Arundhati, George, Naomi et al I would be flattered to be namechecked in a John le Carré novel but also embarrassed at the guileless shoutiness of the context.

At key moments all these books lack analytical intelligence. Emotional depth? Often. Colourful ability with language? Yes (if much given to bombast and exaggeration). Cunning plotlines? Certainly. The artful creation of multi-levelled timeframes? Emphatically yes. But when a character has to explain the exact geo-political crux, the issue firing the whole narrative, the great wrong which must be understood – time and again JLC gives the speech to a drunk, bombastic, over-the-top or imbecile character: the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, the ridiculously implausible ‘Dimitri’ in Absolute Friends.

It is revealing that the first two characters are bigged up to ‘legendary’ status – ‘the one and only, the irrepressible, the immortal Jonah’ – because in these crux scenes le Carré doesn’t analyse (let alone dramatise): he creates a loud, shouty character and effectively says, ‘Look everybody – this guy is really famous and really clever and he thinks it’s a bad thing, alright, so you should, too.’ It’s also characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot.

‘I am talking world domination by the Yellow Man, and the end of fucking civilisation as we know it, even in the fucking Emerald Isle…’ (Jonah, Tailor of Panama, p.290)

‘West’s compassioned out, Timbo,’ he announces to the ceiling, not bothering to stifle a huge yawn. ‘Running on empty. Fuck us.’ (Larry, Our Game, p.138)

Instead of subtle and understated analysis, le Carré has key explanations of the big theme of each novel delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

So you read the long speeches the characters are given telling you that the invasion of Iraq wasn’t justified, that there were no weapons of mass destruction, that the Bush presidency was electorally invalid, that Tony Blair shamelessly sucked up to George Dubya for nothing, that the hysteria around the War on Terror was cranked up by the corporate-owned media in order to boost the profits of the arms industry, and so on – and you don’t disagree with any of it.

Like most people I am aware of all this, read all about it in the papers at the time. I just don’t care very much because

a) There is nothing I can do about it .
b) It is the way of the world: which war in the past 150 years wasn’t good for the arms industry, which British Prime Minister of the last sixty years hasn’t sucked up to the over-mighty Superpower?
c) Things have moved on a lot since then.

Either le Carré’s arguments should be made much more forensically, analytically, dispassionately, and zero in on precise wrong-doings; or they should be woven much more cannily into the narrative (à la Robert Harris). But they are neither: too simple minded to be effective, too bolted onto the main plot to have as much dramatic impact as they should. The combined effect, in this novel especially, is to make them look a bit childish and shallow.


My little pony

I have a bet with my son that every post-Cold War le Carré novel will contain a reference to a private school character having a little pony – In his previous three novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies or competing in the local gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama, Quayle finds a photo of Tessa’s first pony in The Constant Gardener).

Disappointingly, the main character here doesn’t have a my-little-pony memory but the receptionist at the Bedford Square house where Ted goes to see his back-up team during his spying days, is ‘a jolly girl called Laura with freckles and a pony club smile’ (p.210). So I’m still just about winning my bet…


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

  • Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
  • A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
  • The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
  • The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
  • The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
  • Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
  • The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
  • Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
  • The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
  • A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
  • The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
  • The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
  • The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
  • Single & Single (1999) Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
  • The Constant Gardener (2001) Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
  • Absolute Friends (2003) Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’ climaxing with them being shot down like dogs.
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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1 Comment

  1. Re: “all too many of the characters are ‘legendary’ and ‘fabled’ ” – Reminds me of something I posted just a day before reading your excellent essay: “Here’s a rule of thumb that I have always found handy. When reading a book or article about the CIA, make a mental note of how many times the word ‘legendary’ pops up. Because this word is a good indicator of something worth keeping in mind: Its presence is a dead giveaway that while the authors may be insiders, they lack the requisite distance to report objectively. Instead of writing history, they may be producing hagiography.” From my review of Milt Bearden and James Risen: The Main Enemy.

    Reply

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