Is John La Carré Losing his Cool?


In a recent New York Times review of John Le Carré’s new book, “Absolute Friends”, the reviewer asks if Le Carré is losing his cool. He then goes on to say that the end of the book is a furious tirade against America, ergo not cool, or words to that effect.


“Absolute Friends” starts in the present by introducing a comical Brit who works as a tour guide in one of mad King Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria. It turns out though that the Brit, Ted Mundy, isn’t so comical after all. This is only one of his personalities. Born and partly raised in Pakistan the son of a colonial-minded, alcoholic British army officer, he has been many things and failed at most. The one thing he was good at though was spying. But that was back in the good old days when German was still divided by the Wall, and you knew who the enemy was. Or did you? Ted had already begun to question his country’s, and its number one ally’s, motives.


Before joining the British secret service, where fate and his karma led him, he got involved in the German left-wing, anti-establishment, free sex youth movement, not really from conviction, rather because of falling in love with one of its leggy lovelies. But mostly due to the ideologically fanatical, crippled Sasha, with whom he falls in love in a different way: an absolute friendship. Sasha dreams of a just society, even a perfect one, and decides that Ted should help him achieve it. The bad guys are, of course, the capitalist west, led by the United States.


But Ted is deported from Germany for participating in riots, becomes a school teacher, marries – in short, settles down. But the spooks find him and send him back to Berlin, East this time, where he becomes Sasha’s handler. Sasha, disillusioned because his West German compatriots have not responded to his revolutionary ideas, had already defected to the East, where he soon became disillusioned once more, this time by the suffocating, cynical communist dictatorship he was now a part of. So he becomes a double agent, spiriting secrets, via Ted, to his old enemies. Here’s where the smooth talking, insidious CIA agent Rourke first enters.


But the Wall falls, East Germany is free and the Soviet Union collapses, so Ted is out of a job. Sasha is disappointed that East Germany is almost immediately absorbed into West Germany’s capitalistic web. Many won’t remember, or never knew it, but after the wall fall there was a serious movement to make East Germany a relatively autonomous state, retaining some of its socialist principles. It never really got off the ground though, and my German friends told me that reunification was inevitable, given the feelings on both sides – greed on the East and power on the West.


Ted loses contact with Sasha, but stays in Germany, with a new family now, an ex-prostitute Turkish woman – which, after this very long flashback, about three-quarters of the book, brings us back to his tour guide activity showing off Mad Ludwig. In the background is the Iraq war, the neocon Bush administration, for Ted worse even than its predecessors. He rants against them to the tourists, who take his antics as part of his comical spiel, but he means it. He’s out of all that though – or so he thinks. For Sasha, with all his old ideals intact, reappears and Ted cannot resist him. He isn’t convinced by Sasha’s latest scheme, but he has a great need to protect his absolute friend, so he reluctantly joins him. The rest of the plot may seem improbable, but how many improbable things have we been seeing in the real world lately? Ted and Sasha are true innocents, neither of whom would hurt a fly, but they hurt themselves irrevocably when they try to convert idealism to action. They are finely drawn characters. The author spends less time on the women in the book, as is often the case with Le Carré, but we recognize them despite this.        


Le Carré hasn’t lost his cool as a writer, nor his ability to weave a thrilling, page-turning story against the tapestry of real historical events. And his vitriolic attacks aren’t against America, but against the current administrations of the United States and Britain, both dominated by corporate greed. As far as terrorism and the Iraq war are concerned, his opinions coincide with an article which appeared here some time ago. In fact, he may have been writing this book at the same time. Whatever your maya, don’t miss this one.

© Frank Thomas Smith

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