Absolute Friends by 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, the narrative 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 wit or style.

Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends feels like yet another channeling of le Carré’s own life story. 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 – exactly like JLC – discovering a liking for German language and literature and so going abroad to study, in this fictional instance, to Berlin (le Carré 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 character’s 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 sustained sensuality – the ease with which Jonathan Roper or Oliver Single or Andrew Osnard or Ted Mundy attract and bed posh totty is one of the defining characteristics 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)

Here we come to one of le Carré’s most irritating mannerisms – the way so many of his protagonists are in awe of super-famous, notorious, legendary figures. Thus everyone in Berlin knows Sasah, just as everyone in Panama knew Harry Pendel, everyone in the City knew ‘Tiger’ Single, and so on and so on.

Sasha is a small, intense, broken-looking chap but, again, like all le Carré leading men, the smirking ‘conqueror’ of numberless women – as well as being the much-admired brains behind radical student politics in the seething Berlin of 1969.

It’s rather a relief that, for the first time in five or six novels, the books features scenes which don’t involve chaps from Eton and Winchester pointing out to each other how legendary and/or what total rotters each other are, in that insufferably self-congratulatory public school way.

Indeed, the scenes set among the free love and ‘smash the system’ radical students of late 1960s Berlin felt powerful and persuasive – helped no end 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. All women in le Carré novels are young and beautiful and carefree, personally I find this thread rather creepy.

They go 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 so many people experienced in the early 1970s.

Ted teaches at schools (inevitably he has affair with one of the other master’s wives), lives for a while in the stoned writer’s colony in Taos, USA (obviously has an affair with a painter’s wife), 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 sexual 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 Ted 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, Sasha from the old days in the Berlin commune!

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 became a lowly employee of the State Security Police, the Stasi.

Now, by the time of this backstage meeting with Ted, Sasha has become completely disillusioned with life in the East, whose authorities he dismisses as ‘red fascists’. He has 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. And then he was amazed to see his old friend Ted’s name on the manifest of a travelling theatre group. And hence this meeting…

Sasha tells Ted he 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 whenever 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 his British handlers.

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 tall, shaggy, 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, Jay disappears, without a goodbye or anything. Amory explains to Ted that he has just been vetted by ‘the cousins’ (i.e. 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, i.e. 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 to May 2003) to find Ted adrift in Europe again and explains everything I’ve just summarised in a flashback.

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, Ted has returned to Germany and set up a school for teaching English to corporate executives.

So as ‘the present’ of the novel opens, this school has shut down, bankrupted by the (possibly) criminal activities of Ted’s 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 explains that she is the 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 Zara’s protector, paying for proper food, buying the suspicious Mustafa toys, behaving honourably for he is, like so many le Carré characters, at heart a jolly decent chap, an honourable schoolboy.

And now we realise the reason why le Carré had his protagonist 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 despite the naked contrivance of all this, the actual descriptions of Ted’s childhood in dusty Pakistan, of playing with the native children and the sweet memories which elude him in later life, are genuinely moving.

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

And so all 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, where alternative discourses and theories can 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 (Klein, Stiglitz). 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. However, Ted is not that naive and the next night hops into a car and drives back out to the aircraft hanger, only to find it full of farm equipment, and then continues 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’ i.e. the CIA: he’s been a freelancer, advising 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 Ted loads 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 big 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. Oh. 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 the leg and shoulder. He 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 into the attic 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 in a bid to tell the truth but is stifled.

So official sources give 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, godammit!) while Sasha is characterised as a former Stasi spy and failed radical. So much for the cover-up.

We go on to 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 who, in le Carré’s view, are 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, with 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 of him, 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 together by its secrets and conspiracies, to the growing boy John 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 also in The Night Manager where ‘the worst man in the world’, Richard Roper, lords it over another close-knit bunch of cronies.

The narrator of le Carré’s fictions is always an interloper into these secret worlds, an outsider, attracted and repulsed by their phony charisma, who ends up overturning them. Thus Tiger’s son, Oliver, betrays his father, and Roper’s protégé Jonathan Pine, betrays his slick arms dealer chief.

As part of his odd childhood, 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, also notorious for promoting its members, either undergraduate or faculty, to mythical status.

And then, after a spell of teaching at Eton (another institution not shy of turning its masters and pupils into legends) 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 of a whole series of cliqueish little worlds full of people telling each other how terrific they are, I think, explains the often smothering cliqueyness of much of le Carré’s fiction, which consistently 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 where we first meet him, 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 le Carré’s many 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 into 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 – ‘… the photograph of our dear old queen…’ (p.148) conveys 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.

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 show how superior one is to history by mocking it – ‘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.255)

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 as ‘… our White Hotel in East Prussia..’ (p.189)

6. To puff up his characters in that mock heroic, facetiously superior upper class drawl – ‘our very own hero of the hour’; one of the teenage actors is described as ‘Lexham, our Jamaican Macbeth…’ (p.136)

7. Loftily mocking the act of communication – ‘… for the benefit of our British and American readers…’ (p.86)

8. Normal, standard use of ‘our’, striking for its rarity – ‘Our targets for tonight are…’ (p.84) ‘our fellow activists..’ (p.90)

9. ‘Our’ as a dialect usage of working class people – Kate’s working class, northern father always refers to her as ‘our Kate’ (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, superior, knowing 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, for anything which isn’t detached and ironised.

Cartoon characterisation

Something similar is going on with the tendency not just to name a 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? This mockery owes more to P.G. Wodehouse than the thriller tradition.

Endless comparisons to 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 and tells you it is taking in the world-spanning implications of the American military-industrial complex, it is fighting a losing battle against the narrowing impact of the le Carré’s relentlessly public school and cricket mindset.


The big issue

Belatedly, I realised that most of JLC’s post-Cold War novels gravitate around a Big Geopolitical ‘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 he quietly dropped his plan.) Thus each of the novels deals with a Big Topic:

  • The Night Manager – the 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 (Georgian drug suppliers)
  • The Constant Gardener – multinational pharmaceuticals resorting to conspiracy and murder to protect their profits
  • Absolute Friends – untamed aggression of global hyperpower (America) run riot

The big issue which 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,’ le Carré 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 fascinating 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 so their anger is all the more impactful).

But it fails in this novel because it is simply so unsubtle. If JLC was already angry at the lies and hypocrisies of ‘our masters’ in the 1990s, he goes bananas 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 and all the rest, 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, and their central points, 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 geopolitical 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: to the moronic Larry Pettifer in Our Game, to the oafish Jonah in Tailor of Panama, to 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, so you should, too.’

It’s also dismayingly characteristic that these Voices of Truth swear a lot as if swearing guarantees the truth o what’s being sworn about:

‘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 the key explanations of the big theme of each of his post-Cold War novels delivered by over-hyped, swearing drunks.

What’s ultimately so dismaying and demoralising isn’t what le Carré is saying, it’s its complete unoriginality: when 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 – who among le Carré’s liberal readership is going to disagree with any of this?

Like all his readers I know al this already because I read about it in the papers all 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 an over-mighty America?
c) That was then. Things have moved on a lot since 2004.

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’s much more canny novels). But they do neither and feel 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 le Carré’s views look 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 of 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 in Absolute Friends does not 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. I just need there to be a pony reference in his last four novels and I win a pound.


Credit

Absolute Friends by John le Carré was published in 2004 by Hodder and Stoughton. All page references are to the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

Reviews of John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – 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.
1962 A Murder of Quality – 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.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – 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.
1965 The Looking Glass War – 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.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover – His one attempt at a ‘serious’ novel and, allegedly. his worst book.
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – 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.
1979 Smiley’s People – 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.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – 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.
1986 A Perfect Spy – 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.
1989 The Russia House – 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.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – 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.
1993 The Night Manager – 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.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – the legendary 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 eminently dislikeable upper-class twits.
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Old Etonian conman Andrew Osnard 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, the legendary Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based in a fictional 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 with a sick and jaundiced world.
1999 Single & Single – 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.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Astonishingly posh diplomat’s wife, Tessa Quayle, discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results among its poor and powerless patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining the events leading up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s prolonged quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Former public school 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. This in turn comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha contacts Ted again and unwittingly lures him into a Machiavellian American sting operation, whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, a set-up which climaxes with them being shot down like dogs. First ‘historic’ part good – second part overblown anti-Americanism.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school boy Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, a half-Congolese translator, is invited by British intelligence to lend his knowledge of arcane African languages and dialects to an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions. These have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, ostensibly in the name of negotiating peace, but who are actually planning to engineer a coup and impose a compliant leader who will allow his Western backers to plunder the country’s mineral resources. When Salvo learns this he sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man – Posh Hamburg-based British banker Tommy Brue and posh refugee lawyer Annabel Richter find themselves involved in a conspiracy by German security services to frame an apparently innocent Muslim refugee and, along with him, the moderate organiser of Muslim charities, as ‘terrorists’. But this dubious German plan is itself trumped by the CIA who betray all the characters in the book, violently kidnap the two Muslims, and take them away for indefinite incarceration and torture.
2010 Our Kind of Traitor – An Oxford don and his barrister girlfriend on holiday in Antigua get involved with a Russian mafiosi who wants to ‘defect’ to the British, exposing ‘corruption in high places’ – and end up playing crucial roles in the mission to rescue him and his family which, however, does not go according to plan.
2013 A Delicate Truth – British civil servant Toby Bell uncovers evidence that his Minister helped arrange an extraordinary rendition, involving US mercenaries, British soldiers and a Foreign Office observer, supposedly to capture a high value terrorist on Gibraltar except there was no terrorist. Instead a Muslim woman and her baby were shot to ribbons. Three years later, the retired FO man, Sir Christopher (‘Kit’) Probyn is approached out of the blue by one of the British soldiers who’s been haunted by the debacle, and this triggers a joint attempt by him and Toby to present the evidence to their superiors, to confront the architect of the fiasco, and then to inform the Press – in all of which they miserably fail.

Our Game by John le Carré (1995)

‘I’d adore to live without him, Diana! I’d give my entire bloody fortune to be rid of Larry and his works for the rest of my  natural life. Unfortunately, we are inextricably involved with each other and I have to find him for my own salvation and probably for his.’ (p.185)

Tim Cranmer

A first-person narrative told by Tim ‘Timbo’ d’Abell Cranmer (p.54), educated at Winchester and Oxford, and recruited into British Intelligence, where he served for twenty years or so before being pensioned off aged 47. His uncle Bob left Tim a winery in Devon where he now makes a nice living, keeping up his collection of eighteenth century barometers and Chinese Chippendale footstools. He was married to Diana, who also worked for the Service, but she divorced him years ago. More recently into his life has moved a highly-strung young female composer, Emma, half his age, temperamental, sexually inventive.

Larry Pettifer

The novel is about a chap Tim was at Winchester with, a few years younger than him, one Larry Pettifer (‘Larry was a new boy the same term I became a prefect.’ p.97). Tim meets up with Larry again at Oxford, where legions of women swoon to his good looks (‘Blast the fellow, he landed an outright First against my rather shaky Second,’ I said with a sporting laugh. p.100), before bumping into him again in Venice, where he was cutting a swathe through the middle-aged women tourists he was guiding around the churches and galleries. Tim recruits Larry into the Secret Service and subsequently runs him as an agent or ‘joe’, angling for him to be ‘recruited’ by the Soviets, which he duly is, by Konstantin Checheyev based in the USSR’s London embassy. And so Larry embarks on some years working as a British double agent.

After the Berlin Wall comes down along with the USSR, Tim retires and helps Larry get a job at the nearby University of Bath, as a left-wing politics lecturer, tiresomely bleating on about the failings of the West and espousing various good causes. But Larry makes a pest of himself, inviting himself first to Sunday lunches at Tim’s, then for the whole Sunday, flirting with Emma, then seducing her with his radicalism, dangerously dropping hints about Tim’s former career, of which Emma knows nothing. One day she leaves. Maybe he seduced her, the beastly cad.

The missing £37 million

A few weeks later the police come to interview Tim and tell him Dr Pettifer has gone missing. Tim is then summoned up to London by his old colleagues in ‘the Office’, who interview him aggressively before revealing that young Larry was not just a double agent working ‘for’ the Russian head of station, Konstantin Checheyev. In the last few days it has emerged that he and Checheyev embezzled the Russians for some £37 million! Tim swears complete ignorance, in fact amazement, at this fact. He is told to keep his mouth shut and packed off back to Cornwall.

It is only at this late stage that the narrator reveals the rather startling fact that he actually tried to kill Larry a few weeks earlier, around the time he ‘disappeared’. Furious at Larry for seducing Emma, Tim lured him to a deep and legendary small lake – Priddy Pool – where he fell on him, battering him unconscious and dragging him by the feet over to the pool and throwing him in. But he was in such a state that he can’t clearly remember whether Larry was dead or not. Apparently not, as the evidence builds up that Larry not only survived, but persuaded Emma to run away and join him on his quixotic crusade.

The Ingush

‘Crusade’? Yes, because as the novel inches forward through a blizzard of memories and reminiscences, as Timbo mulls over scenes from his former life – his long working relationship with Larry, the birth, flowering and end of his affair with Emma – and then as he is interrogated again by the police, and again by Intelligence officers, it becomes clear that Larry didn’t just steal the missing money: he was in league with Checheyev to funnel it towards one of his ‘good causes’, the long-oppressed Ingush people of the south Caucasus, a people neighboured by the Chechens and Ossetians and oppressed for centuries by Tsarist and then communist and now neo-capitalist Russia.

Quest for Larry

To borrow Timbo’s own semi-religious Victorian terminology, he sets out on a ‘quest’ to track down Larry and Emma. Using a fake identity, passport, driving license and bundles of cash he’d kept hidden for just such a rainy day, he spends the second half of the novel driving around England, digging up material from former Intelligence colleagues, quizzing a Foreign Office chap whose wife he once had an affair with, and tracking Larry and Emma down to a shabby house (9A Cambridge Street) in Bristol which they obviously used as a base before abandoning it.

Here Tim discovers a trove of paperwork supposedly connected with a carpet import-export company, which he naturally concludes is a front for laundering money and transporting arms to the heroic Ingush freedom fighters. In the novel’s most gruesome sequence, Timbo motors to the house of the owner of the import-export company, who tells him her husband hasn’t been home for a week, but explains that he’s often away on business trips. Timbo drives up to the firm’s isolated house-cum-warehouse in the hills to discover it has been thoroughly ransacked, and then follows a trail of blood up to an outhouse further up the hill where he discovers the bodies of the owner and the two locals who cleaned for him, tortured and murdered.

Paris

Tim catches a ferry to France and drives to Paris to interview an aged lady who knew both Larry and Emma – the Contessa Ann-Marie von Diderich – and there, to the reader’s surprise, finds Emma living quite contentedly, still practising the piano, unrepentant about dumping Tim for Larry, convinced that the embezzlement and money laundering and gun running they helped orchestrate is righting one of the world’s injustices. After the hundreds of passages in which Tim has described his affair with Emma in purple prose, it’s surprising when he simply says goodbye and walks away.

Moscow

Tim flies to Moscow, following contacts and phone calls which lead him to Checheyev via other contacts from the Soviet years. Entering a night club where he’d been told to go, Timbo finds himself being bundled downstairs to confront the sinister owner. It is a terrifying milieu. (An unfortunate man has been tied to a chair and obviously tortured, and bleeds and moans in the corner of the office throughout the meeting). After a cursory questioning, Tim is taken away from the office, shoved downstairs into a makeshift cell and locked up for ten days. He can hear the sounds and smell the cooking of the Ingush families above him. Two young men with Kalashnikovs come and chat and smoke with him.

Eventually he is dragged out of the cell, given his coat and gloves back and dragged upstairs, outside and through deep snow to a van, then driven for miles beyond the ruined outskirts of Moscow to a shabby settlement where he meets Checheyev. Shabby, exhausted, Checheyev wants to know who Tim is working for and doesn’t believe his protestations that he is on a solo mission, simply to find his old friend.

The dénouement

Who cares.


Bombast

One dictionary definition of ‘bombast’ is ‘speech or writing that is meant to sound important or impressive but is not sincere or meaningful’.

This novel overflows with bombast – with the confident public school assurance that Tim and his schoolchums and their tiny circle make up the whole world; that their public school nicknames and their public school mindset and their public school whimsy, the jocular exaggerations, the way simply all of their friends are legendary and well-known and famous and awfully bright (Emma is ‘warm hearted and brilliantly clever’ p.281), the in-jokes at their club and the banter between chaps who were in the Service together – that these are the centre of the world. As a small example, the narrator refers to

The famous Pettifer forelock, now shot with grey but still swinging across his brow in immature revolt. (p.66)

Is the Pettifer forelock famous? Have you heard of it? No. Has anyone heard of it? No. Then what does it mean to write that it is ‘famous’? It is a rhetorical strategy to incorporate the reader into this tiny, precious, self-reinforcing, self-important world. ‘In our world his forelock was famous. And what other world is there, old boy?’ Again:

We were seated around the famous Pringle boardroom table. (p.150)

Is the Pringle boardroom table famous? No. Have you heard of it? No. This is the kind of self-aggrandising rhetoric of white middle-aged chaps down the golf club or gentleman’s club or old boys club, swapping yarns about famous Johnno or old Jumbo or the legendary Biffo, remember old Biffo?

This kind of coercive, blustering, shallow myth-making about the chaps occurs on every page.

Calm down. That wasn’t Zeus talking, that was Jake Merriman, lightest of the Top Floor lightweights. Any lighter he’d blow off the roof, we used to say. (p.50)

A typical piece of bombast and un-humour in one sentence. a) Not exactly a gut-busting joke, is it, though it’s probably the best one in the book. And b) I never for a moment was at any risk of thinking his boss in the Service was Zeus. Zeus was the father of the Greek gods. Jake Merriman was his boss in the Intelligence Service. Not hard to tell the difference. The sentence tells me nothing about the plot or the world, nothing except for the narrator’s tendency to melodramatise his own banal and self-important observations.

I do my Head Prefect number, the way I used to speak to him at school when Larry was a parson’s son in revolt and I was King of Babylon. (p.51)

Was Tim ever the King of Babylon? No. Typical of the kind of schoolboy exaggeration, of giving each other over-the-top nicknames, of striking heroic poses and exaggerated attitudes, which sometimes lingers on into university and then most people grow out of. But not these characters. The entire toolkit of immature schoolboy affectation, facetiousness, silly nicknames and affected superiority appear to stay with them for life.

–When we were students doing student summer jobs, a friend of mine pointed out that whenever you started working somewhere and someone who’d been there for ages told you, ‘We’re all mad here!!’ you could guarantee it would be the most boring office in England. Self delusion.

Or remember the sign which you used to see on people’s desks saying – ‘You don’t have to be crazy to work here – but it helps!!!!!!!!’ – without fail indicating that this will be the dreariest, saddest, dullest place you have ever worked in.

The self-dramatisation of le Carré’s narrators reminds me of these old anecdotes and, like them, the more his characters protest their earth-shattering importance, the more trivial and silly they seem. The more they come over as boring middle-aged losers pathetically dramatising and legending each other.

He has been on one of his heroic voyages, and now he’s going to boast about it. (p.58)

Larry… in his role of Secret Protector of the Righteous once more, goes through his paces like an angel. (p.54)

But Larry is not a Secret Protector of the Righteous, is he? No such position in fact exists. Larry is a narcissistic and tiresome ex-intelligence agent. He is certainly not an ‘angel’. And who or what are ‘the Righteous’ in this sentence, anyway?

And what I see is Larry, seated before the gasfire, clutching his goblet of hot wine to his breast, a Byron of his own imagining… (p.242)

I have locked her in a hollow mountain in the Caucasus, he replied. I have seduced her in accordance with my blood-feud against the infidel Tim Cranmer. I have swept her away on the white stallion of my sophistry. (p.255)

Instead of thought – bombast. Instead of psychology – melodramatic and somehow childish exaggeration.

Gone the dreary stories of academic lowlife. Instead we have Larry redux, Larry the world-dreamer and Sunday sermoniser, one moment raging against the shameful Western inertia, the next painting treacly visions of altruistic wars conducted by a United Nations strike-force empowered to put on its Batman uniform and head off tyranny, pestilence and famine at a moment’s notice. (p.61)

Posh friends

Winchester and Oxford, the Intelligence Service and then inheriting money (lots of money) to set up as a gentleman wine grower in Devon, Tim’s circle of acquaintance is narrow, smug and crushingly posh, chaps to banter with and a seemingly endless sequence of chapesses to bonk.

  • Celia, one his local ‘conquests’, is (inevitably) the inheritor of a large estate near him in Devon and rides to hounds, of course.
  • Timbo chats at the train station to ‘a forlorn baronet known locally as Poor Percy’ (p.148).
  • The banker Jamie Pringle’s secretary went to Roedean, natch.
  • ‘Kids are doing splendidly, Tim, thank you. Marcus is captain o’ Fives, Penny’s coming out next spring.’ (p.153)
  • When in town he repairs to his Pall Mall club, home of many a retired admiral. (p.166)
  • ‘She lifted her elbow sideways, suggesting country girl and public school.’ (p.74) Is there, in this imaginative universe, any other kind of woman?
  • At ‘the Office’ ie headquarters of MI6, he is interviewed by a woman Marjorie. ‘I imagined uncles in the Cabinet and blue-rinsed aunts who were the backbone of the Tory right.’ (p.87)
  • When he visits Simon Dugdale, another posh mannered chap, this one in the Foreign Office, he gets a good groping and ear-chewing from the wife, Clare Dugdale (‘You’re still terribly yummy Tim. And Si says you’ve found an absolutely super, frightfully young girl.’ p.278) who – of course – he once had an affair with. Poor Timbo, he can’t help being such a terrific babe magnet. Mind you, Clare read Philosophy at Cambridge. A better class of posh totty.

‘I lunched at my club… Afterwards I bought a few shirts in Jermyn Street…’ (p.71) ‘I was wearing good brown country shoes by Ducker’s of Oxford, hand-made and rubber-soled.’ (p.314) Nothing but the best for this narrator.

Emma

Hundreds of pages are devoted to the special qualities of his lover, Emma Manzini, who comes over as anything but special, rather as a self-obsessed, self-righteous nincompoop, but who prompts in the narrator an endless stream of gushing schoolboy, sub-Keatsian rhapsody and narcissistic self-dramatisation. ‘Emma didn’t talk to me at breakfast – it is the end of the world. Emma made me a cup of tea – the heavens reveal their splendour.’ If over-ripe cheese could write, it would be like this:

It is my Dark Age. It is the rest of my life before Emma. (p.65)

My Emma. My false dawn. (p.165)

Is she wise? Is she plain dumb? Emma defies theses categories. Her beauty, like Larry’s, is its own morality. (p.173)

Emma as artist. Emma as mistress of the Freudian doodle. Emma as echo of Larry’s eternal outcry against a world he can neither join nor destroy. (p.238)

These colours, why had I never painted them? Emma, you were all these hopes. (p.307)

Whenever he starts singing Emma’s praises I am reminded of my parents’ Charles Aznavour and Sacha Distel records:

Sheeeeeeeeeeeeee may be the face I can’t forget
A trace of pleasure or regret [and so on…]

It goes without saying that Emma is gorgeous and, handily, half Tim’s age (every middle-aged man’s fantasy) and he is not shy of describing the sexual advantages of having such a young squeeze. She is not only beautiful, we are told, but very ‘flexible’. You lucky dog, Timbo! But do not jump to gross assumptions, impatient reader: Timbo is not any old middle-aged shagger, he is a shagger with soul, soul enough for endless maudlin soliloquies about his lady love, in good times and bad. Even when they are arguing, when a shadow falls between their spirits, why – even then she makes sweet midnight forays to his boudoir!

Sometimes in the depth of night she creeps into my room like a thief and makes love to me without saying a word. Then creeps away, leaving her tears on my pillow before the daylight finds her out. (p.68)

There are hundreds of passages of pompous lyricism like this, the book overflows with them, repeating over and over how in thrall he is to the wonderful, quixotic, paradoxical Emma. Timbo

lavished jewels and freedom on her, made her my clothes-horse and my love object, my woman to end all women, icon, goddess, daughter and, as Larry would say, slave. (p.164)

What a berk. None of this erases the scene where he describes their first meeting – in the waiting room of a physiotherapist because they both have back pain – where Tim begins to fancy her before making it his mission to stalk her (‘Meanwhile I stalk her…’ p.172). I think – I hope – that Timbo is meant to be a deeply unreliable narrator, that we are meant to find him a creepy, pervy, pompous, self-satisfied, lecherous middle-aged man, who creates a weird love nest for the troubled young woman, who – he persuades himself – ‘loves’ him in return (at his big house in Devon, she is given her own wing with a door separating his and her corridors). But if he is deluded about this, what else may he be getting wrong?

Sexual boasting

Interspersed among the scores of passages of overblown lyricism are moments of quietly smug sexual bragging which are cringe-inducing and embarrassing.

I saw her naked on her stomach with her chin in her hands, turning to look at me over her shoulder as she hears me enter. (p.221)

I remembered the kiss she had given me at the Connaught that had woken me from my hundred-year sleep, and how her instinctive ingenuity as a lover had taken me to regions I had not known existed. (p.338)

But it is not just Emma Tim brags about; he takes various opportunities to remind that he is a bit of a Casanova, counting a number of his poshest neighbours among his ‘conquests’.

Celia was one of my local conquests from the days before Emma… She lived in penury on a large estate near Sparkford and rode to hounds… (p.112)

She is neither of the age nor category from which my usual conquests are selected: the compliant female colleague or senior secretary; the sporting adulteress of the English country round. (p.171)

‘His usual conquests.’ When he goes to meet Simon Dugdale it is laugh-out-loud preposterous that Timbo turns out to have bedded his posh, glamorous wife Claire. Of course he has. And she still fancies him like mad!

Not content with alerting us to his own sexual conquests, Tim also bathes in the reflected glory of his one-time protégé, the legendary Larry, who is also described as a great swiver of women.

Oxford fell in love with him. He was very good-looking. The girls rolled over for him in droves. (p.98)

He was ticking over at about three a week. Women and bottles. (p.134)

When did Larry ever have two of anything except women? (p.223)

Women came to him naturally, he just had to reach out for them and they hopped into his hand. (p.340)

Of course they do. Fat, repellently posh drunk Jamie Pringle, owner of a merchant bank, tells Timbo after a ‘good lunch’ (ie a room full of posh chaps getting pissed), about a girl he used to screw in Manchester. ‘Cindy. Worked in the silk trade. Silky Cindy.’ (p.157). Fnah fnah. A little later, and even more pissed, Jamie recalls legendary Larry turning up to suggest an improper financial deal, accompanied by an absolute stunner, black hair piled up on her head,

‘… waiting for you to let it down. Absolute fatal weakness of mine. Love a black bush.’ (p.159)

Who doesn’t love a black bush, eh? Obviously Pringle’s quote is not the narrator’s, his lechery is part of his character as a repellent fat banker. But it is cut from the same cloth as many of Timbo’s comments about Emma positioning herself for his rear entry on their ‘love nights’, about her wonderful ‘flexibility’, and the other moments when he can barely conceal his glee at bedding a woman half his age. Sweaty lecherous men.

Self dramatisation

Just as he devotes hundred of passages to establish Larry’s legendary qualities, and painting the full Victorian sentimentality of his relationship with Emma, the narrator is not backwards in dramatising his own role: in countless places he takes a leaf from Julius Caesar’s book and talks about himself in what we can maybe call the ‘public school third person’:

We were alone, Merriman and Cranmer, blood brothers as always. (p.107)

It is years since Cranmer has stepped outside the limits of his self-confinement, played the brave game, waited impatiently for evening, lain awake till dawn. (p.171)

Cranmer is free! Cranmer has paid his dues! (p.173)

I, Cranmer, evader, closet romantic, veteran of a raft of futile love affairs, had fallen cloak-over-dagger for the oldest trick in the book! (p.164)

We are arguing, Cranmer versus the rest of England… This time it is Cranmer’s temper that snapped, not Larry’s. (p.258)

But Cranmer had filed. Cranmer had filed and forgotten. Cranmer in his criminally negligent myopia had consigned the cause of the Ingush people to the dustbin of history. (p.267)

I was part of them, propelled by my past as they were, ignorant of my future. I was a fugitive, homeless and stateless, a small nation of one. (p.346)

Timbo is, as the old phrase has it, a legend in his own lunchtime. A man convinced of his own vast self-importance, a man who takes 420 pages to tell us this fairly simple story, because it is so larded and padded out with prolonged sequences about jolly old Larry and ever-flexible Emma and, at its centre, Cranmer the hero, Cranmer the fool, Cranmer the innocent, Cranmer the cynic, Cranmer the whatever adjectival phrase you have to hand.

But that is all I say, because that is how Cranmer’s part is written for him. (p.255)

Humourlessness

The narcissistically self-obsessed have no sense of humour because they have a very poor sense of other people.

‘Expect you’re looking forward to your Senior Citizen’s any day now.’
‘Thank you, Tom, I have a few years to wait and I’m glad to do it.’
Laughter in which I share… (p.147)

‘He’d had an accident. Fallen downstairs, he said…
‘There’s no accidents round here, darling. Everything’s deliberate.’ She giggled at her own wit. (p.217)

‘I inherited a bit of a problem, quite honestly. My Uncle Bob, who founded the business for love, put a lot of trust in his Maker and rather less in science.’
Clare gave a hoot of laughter. (p.280)

Old school tie

It is a truism that public schoolboys never seem to outgrow their schooldays, the clothes it taught them to wear, the jolly japes and smug banter it taught them to consider funny, the network of other public schoolboys which comprises the only world that matters. Everything, ultimately, ends up being compared back to those jolly halcyon (or beastly) days.

‘When Larry was with CC he was on holiday. When he was with me, he was at school.’ (p.86)

‘The school [Winchester] was still in the Dark Ages. Fagging, flogging, bullying galore, the whole Arnoldian package.’ (p.97)

Crossing the footbridge at Castle Cary station, I was confused by the clatter of young shoes in the Victorian ironwork and fancied I smelt steam and burning coals. I was a boy again, lugging my school suitcase down the stone steps for another solitary holiday with Uncle Bob. (p.112)

Crammed against the stone wall stood the old school trunk I used as a filing box for my CC archive. (p.260)

‘And they hated the Ossetians,’ Larry says keenly, like a schoolboy wanting to be top. (p.263)

I remembered that this was how we had always eaten, when we ate our frightful meals together: potatoes boiled to a sludge and school cabbage floating in a green lake. (p.279)

From nowhere an old man appeared at my car window, and his gnarled face reminded me of the groundsman at my first boarding school. (p.307)

I had been slapped at school too often. (p.360)

[Timbo asks legendary Larry what it was like being imprisoned and interrogated in Havana?] ‘After Winchester? A piece of cake. I’ll settle for a Cuban prison over House Library any day.’ (p.365)

In fact, the title of the book is taken from the phrase masters and pupils use to refer to the special (obviously) brand of football they play at Winchester public school – ‘our game’, taken from a one-page paean to the old place. Which obviously has the not-so-subtle double meaning that extends it to refer to espionage as ‘our game’ – the British Intelligence’s ‘game’ of deceiving and cheating – and then also on to the ‘game’ which Larry, Timbo and flexible Emma are ‘playing’ throughout the book.

Religious rhetoric

Another way the sensibility and language of the novel are permanently inflated is via the liberal use of religious quotes and references. This throwaway hijacking of religious rhetoric denotes not an ounce of genuine religious feeling; it is just one more way of bigging up, exaggerating, and dramatising his ego:

I was standing arms outstretched in crucifixion… (p.250)

[Tim describes agreeing to work as an agent as] ‘taking the veil‘. (p.101)

I choose the Grill Room at the Connaught, my shrine for great occasions. (p.175)

Now it was Cranmer, her saviour, who scrambled after her, calling stop! and wait! and come back! (p.239)

I smelt roast beef and wood smoke. I was blessed. (p.300) [This phrase is describing coming across a country pub which does decent food. Not relieved or happy. Blessed.]

I was being conveyed, never mind whether the Forest, or the whole valley of the shadow, was watching me pass by. (p.301)

The hill’s gorse summit rose behind her like the green hill in a hymn.

The tracks mounted a concrete path and thereafter held their peace. (p.312)

Dee’s a saint, she is saying from the window of my bedroom. (p.328)

She was wearing a crushed linen smock and it had the appearance of a habit: of a deliberate renunciation of the flesh. (p.336)

Only by going after Larry could I fill the pit that for so long had done duty for my soul. (p.343)

There is no God, soul or system of salvation, there is no religious belief in the book, these are just more quotes and tags and references picked up at school and university which lend the ambling plot and the hyperbolic thoughts of the pompous protagonist a spurious profundity.

Insight free

As Professor John Sutherland pointed out in his London Review of Books review of The Secret Pilgrim, le Carré frequently tells us his characters are full of wit and wisdom and insight… and then we actually hear them speak and they sound like public school buffoons. They are revealed as bores. The acuteness of le Carré’s descriptions – which are often marvellous – absolutely doesn’t carry over into his dialogue, which is weak to put it mildly.

For example, legendary Larry is supposed to be a lecturer at quite a good university (Bath). In one scene, he arrives at Tim’s place in a bad mood after a seminar with some other academics:

A coven of middle-aged Russian analysts – the term Moscow-watcher is already out of date – has left him at odds with the approaching daylight. He is talking about the world: our part of it.

So you might expect this politics lecturer to deliver some sensible insight into global politics circa 1994, about the shifting power relations between the United States and Russia and the dire consequences of the civil wars in the former Yugoslavia. For example, how Bill Clinton’s wish to intervene in Kosovo was stone-walled by an EU dominated by a pacifist Germany. But what this politics lecturer – who’s had the additional advantage of having played a minor role in Cold War espionage – actually says is:

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

Is that it? God. What an imbecile.

On another occasion Tim remembers a conversation when Larry made tentative enquiries about contacts in banking; looking back, Tim realises this may have been the start of the embezzlement project he carried out with Checheyev. You might reasonably have expected the conversation between these two professional intelligence officers to convey some detail about the SIS’s banking operations, maybe not the pages of detailed organisation structure and process you’d get from Frederick Forsyth, but the kind of grown-up and interesting insight you might get from, say, Len Deighton or Robert Harris. But this is what follows:

‘Well, there’s always the great and good Jamie Pringle,’ I suggest cautiously… Pringle was our contemporary at Oxford, a rugger-playing scion of Larry’s Unbearable Classes.
‘Jamie’s an oaf,’ Larry declares, swilling his English Breakfast Tea…
‘Pringle’s an arsehole… Was. Is now. And ever shall be. Amen.’ (p.141)

This makes Larry look and sound like an idiot, with the intelligence of a surly 14-year-old. It is impossible to take him or the other characters seriously. (By the way, note the way Larry uses a quote from the Bible to give a patina of respectability to what is in fact the crudest language and the dumbest attitude – dressing up idiocy in fancy quotes and Latin tags.)

Many exchanges and much of the dialogue in these later le Carré novels are quite meaningless. They contain no factual information at all, even about the characters themselves, but reek with this smug ‘one of us’ attitude, a permanent tone of airily superior facetiousness which gets very, very wearing.

Ideas-free

Above all, this over-the-top and facetious style is a poor substitute for thought. The three Robert Harris thrillers I’ve just read may be melodramatic, but they are instinct with political intelligence at all levels of detail, and are genuinely thought-provoking. When characters talk, they offer genuine insights into their own and other characters’ motivation, showing that Harris has thoroughly thought through his characters. The dialogue crisply reveals intentions and schemes which the intelligent reader can interpret and map out, like a chess diagram, and map the changing plans and schemes, as the plot unfolds.

By contrast, the dialogue in le Carré most often consists of character assassination dressed up in buffoonish schoolboy abuse. Thus we are given a thumbnail profile of Eduard Shevardnadze, a key historical figure who was Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union under Gorbachev, until the collapse of the USSR when he became president of an independent Georgia. A fascinating man who played a pivotal role in the international diplomacy and Russian power politics of the period.

Question from Thatcherchild Talbot, who has decided to grow a beard: Please Larry, why did the West fall for Schevardnadze?
Answer, dear Talbot, because Shevers has a sad, bungey face and looks like everybody’s Daddy, when actually he’s a KGB dinosaur with a background of deals with the CIA and a disgraceful record of repressing dissidents. (p.250)

Thump. How lowering. How dumb. How stupid. And this is legendary Larry writing, the man the novel tries to persuade us is the intellectual star of his generation at Oxford, a first class mind and unstoppable babe magnet. But he sounds like a moron.

Hundreds of pages go by, crammed with upper class attitude, Latin tags, Bible quotes and embarrassingly unfunny jokes, all blissfully untroubled by anything you could call an idea or a thought. What ideas there are in the books are trite: the end of the Cold War didn’t mean the end of power politics; the world is still a violent and nasty place; the Russians have behave appallingly to the Ingush, and are continuing to repress ethnic minorities both within and without their borders.

420 pages of public school bombast is a lot to read for such a thin return.

Anne Frank

Do you know the apocryphal story about the terrible off-Broadway production of a play about Anne Frank? Having sat through two hours of awful script and dreadful acting, when the Gestapo finally knock on the front door, a member of the audience shouted out, ‘She’s in the attic!’

I felt the same way about this novel. By page 100 I was heartily sick of Timbo and Larry and Emma and their self-dramatising self-importance. In the final hundred pages, as Timbo leaves England and sets off on his ‘quest’, I think we are meant to feel along with the narrator a tense and urgent need to find Larry before harm comes to him, to rescue him from his own quixotic imaginings, to redeem this Byron of the Caucasus, to … and so on.

But I had my fingers crossed that both Larry and Emma would be found shot dead and, ideally, that the narrator himself would meet his come-uppance for his unbelievable pomposity and self-importance, and in the end I was so repelled by the characters I couldn’t finish the book.

Unreliable narrator – or pompous twit?

Ceaselessly bombarded with the drunken banter of Tim’s impossibly posh pals, with his own immature public school bombast, with his self-congratulatory sexual bragging, and with the posturing stupidity of the two other characters of this appalling ‘game’, it is difficult to know how much of this is meant to be serious and how much satirical.

Is the character of Timbo meant to be a devastating satire on his type of self-important snob? Is Timbo meant to be a contender for Monty Python’s Upper Class Twit of the Year? Is the whole thing meant to be a satirical portrait of the kind of self-satisfied, rich, posh shagger that used to run British Intelligence? Is it an extended joke?

Or does le Carré mean it literally? Are we genuinely meant to sympathise with the absurd Timbo, with his lecherous infatuation with a woman half his age, are we meant to take the idiot Larry seriously as some kind of intellectual, are we meant to regard this small circle of ‘people like us’ as epitomising the best of ‘England’?


Credit

Our Game by John le Carré was published in 1995 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 1996 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 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.
  • A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Didn’t like it.
  • 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, after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside he disobeys orders by falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
  • Our Game (1995) Retired SIS agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at public school and Oxford – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia. And has seduced his girlfriend. Tim sets off on a quest to uncover the true story and try to rescue his ‘friend’.
  • The Tailor of Panama (1996)
  • Single & Single (1999)
  • The Constant Gardener (2001)
  • Absolute Friends (2003)
  • The Mission Song (2006)
  • A Most Wanted Man (2008)
  • Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
  • A Delicate Truth (2013)
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