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An enthralling read, both entertaining and thought-provoking
on 14 February 2015
Published in 2003, 'Absolute Friends' picks up on the tensions across the world in the immediate aftermath of the Iraq War. It has been seen as le Carré's response to 9/11 and America's 'war on terror'. We are introduced to Ted Mundy, a former MI6 spy now living in Germany, who is outraged by the deception used by Western powers to justify the invasion of Iraq. But Ted, now working as an English tour guide in one of Mad King Ludwig's castles in Bavaria, seems powerless to do anything about it. Until, out of the blue, he receives a letter from Sacha, his old friend from the East, summoning him to one last escapade for the cause.
Le Carré then rewinds to take us through Mundy' life story, starting with his birth in colonial India on the day that the Dominion of Pakistan was created, before moving quickly through his unhappy days in an English public school ("Outside the school’s walls the Swinging Sixties are in full cry, but inside them the band of Empire plays on") and into his student life in Berlin. It is here that he meets Sacha, a crippled refugee from the East who has become a leading spokesperson for the counter-culture of the late 1960s and agitator for social change in the West. Mundy rescues Sacha from the brutality of the West German police, of which he himself becomes a victim, and the two become the titular 'absolute friends' for life.
When years later Mundy next encounters Sacha, his disillusioned friend is looking to become a double agent, ostensibly working for the East German Stasi while seeking to supply vital information to the West. Almost without knowing it, Mundy becomes his contact with the British secret service, leading to recruitment by MI6 as a vessel for conveying Sacha's intelligence while providing worthless intelligence from the West in return. Thus Mundy enters a world of deception and doubt, in which his trust in his friend Sacha is the only constant and certainty.
The story moves forward to bring us back to where it started, in Germany in 2003 and Sacha's proposal for one last great adventure serving the cause of oppressed humanity. The trouble for Mundy is knowing for whom he is really working, whose cause he is serving, and who is pulling the puppets' strings.
The novel takes a much darker tone in these closing chapters as events spiral out of control and the levels of deceit build before le Carré delivers a pyrotechnic finale worthy of a Hollywood action movie directed by Michael Bay. We only make sense of this in the final chapter, which is a brilliant satire on news reporting, a caustic view of the way news media is manipulated to distort reality and present a world view that suits the power brokers. We read how the events that have just been told are portrayed in the news media, appearing all too familiar as they stoke fears of terrorist conspiracies and outrages, while the reader knows they are a tissue of lies.
Perhaps this is the key theme of le Carré's later fiction: the way power blocks control and manipulate information, turning truth upside down to obscure what is really happening and justify their own ends. What matters is not the truth but what is perceived to be the truth. Increasingly in le Carré's novels, it is the United States that appears as the key player in this monstrous deception, which may account for the sense of disquiet in some reviews of this and other recent le Carré works. Perhaps some people don't like the direction in which the author's accusatory finger is now pointing.
'Absolute Friends' has divided critics. My view is that it is not great le Carré when compared to his best works but I found it an enthralling read, both entertaining and thought-provoking. While I have read criticisms that argue it lacks the subtlety of his Cold War novels, I think the writer's shift in style is an appropriate response to changes in the global order and developments in international relations, where excessive capitalism now rules. The venality of modern political manoeuvring seems to make le Carré want to howl rather than whisper.