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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.
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on 2 February 2016
Found this 2003 novel in my bookcase, unread. Brr. Reading it in 2016-- with Europe trying to stem or at least control an unprecedented stream of asylum seekers from e.g. Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria—adds a pungent dimension to this JLC novel, which back then must have been highly controversial in countries that signed up to the ‘Coalition of the Willing’ formed in response to 9/11. Do not know how the book was received in France, Germany and Russia, nations unconvinced by the arguments of George Bush Jr. and Tony Blair, whom JLC likens not as Bush’s lapdog, but as his guide dog and the true genius behind the military campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. The key themes of this sprawling, somewhat overwritten novel are permutations of the verb ‘to lie’. They appear time and again in many contexts.
The absolute friends are Ted Mundy (b. 1947 during the Indian Partition) and Sasha (b. 1945 in Germany). They first meet in 1969 in West Berlin where Sasha enjoys a cult-like status as a (non-violent) activist. Ten years later, they meet again, with Ted working out of London for the British Council and Sasha, having reverse-jumped the Wall, an employee of the Ministry of State Security, a Stasi. Or not, or what? Over the next decade, they meet 49 times in centers and outposts of the Evil Empire at occasions the British Council has graced to support with groups of dancers, trade unionists, what not? They exchange carefully-hidden and -doctored fake information… The fall of the Wall disrupts contact between them.
Readers must read themselves how they meet again after 9/11, now in their mid-fifties, with Ted in dire financial trouble and how JLC involves them in a totally callous joint US-UK conspiracy in Heidelberg, a cherished venue in German-American history.
Positive: JLC’s passionate and lyrical style and awesome descriptions of major and minor characters. Many memorable sayings and observations. His courage to challenge what he hates (lies by politicians and their backers, esp. US Republicans and UK’s New Labour). Ted is another incarnation of a favorite JLC life form, the tall male past his prime intent on undoing all previous mediocrity or failure by a final coup of brilliance.
Negative: JLC is not economical with words. Overlong book and chapters (30 pp). The conversations between Ted and Sasha are endless and frustrating because Sasha remains enigmatic and made out of cardboard.
Otherwise, the closing chapter explains to confused readers like me what they may have missed as a result of all the lying and lyricism on earlier pages. Deep book that I will read again.
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on 27 June 2005
For some reason, I'd left this book on the shelf for around a year before I got around to reading it, but in some ways actually improves its reading. There are parallels here with some of Le Carre's other novels (The spy who came in from the cold; The perfect spy; Our game) and is a fine thriller by any standards. However what differentiates it from these and makes it a very important work is the obvious anger running throughout the book that the author feels regarding the current politics of fear eminating from the US and UK administrations.
Le Carre emphasises the climate of propaganda, lies and illegality of governmental decisions throughout the book. It was finished shortly after the Iraq war; a time in which one by one, the reasons given for the war in the first place have crumbled and its bloody aftermath lingers on and on.
A prophetic and very important book.
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on 20 May 2017
Remember Bush's statement, ' if you're not with us you're against us '?
Remember the suicide British scientists?
Remember rendition, normalization of torture, incarceration without trial and British involvement in that crime?
Remember the bogus weapons of mass destruction and the 'Dodgey Dossier'?
Remember Bush seniors background from oilman to C I A boss to US President and understand that the post war profit from administration in Iraq went through Haliburton? Who was an old top dog at Haliburton?
Remember Blair's fawning devotion to USA against all advice; how he persuaded the change in government legal advice and how the media was manipulated, even forcing Greg Duke out when the BBC didn't come on board quickly enough? What makes Blair not a war criminal?
Remember that US personnel are above international law! Cos they say so.
Remember Julian Assange and keep your mouth shut.
And especially remember that you bought into all the above and wonder how true to life this story is. Shame on you.
Orwells books are much used in education. Le Carre gives us a similarly valuable insight in this book.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 May 2011
One of the two friends of the title is Ted Munday, son of a hilariously portrayed major in the ex-Indian, ex-Pakistani army. The Major's disgrace means they have to leave Pakistan; Ted will feel an uncomfortable and vaguely rebellious outsider in England. At school, a teacher of German gives Ted a love for that language. He studies it at Oxford. Sexual attraction draws him, as a politically innocent bourgeois, into a circle of left-wingers in the late 1960s. He decides to do some Germanistic studies in West Berlin, and has an introduction to Sasha, the leader of a radical student commune, who becomes the other friend of the book's title. There are many pages of sardonic but quite affectionate descriptions of the ferocious ideological commitment of these young people. Ted is involved and badly hurt in a student riot, after which the British authorities repatriate him to England.

For the next ten years or so, Ted drifts from country to country, from one unsuccessful employment to another, with memories of the Berlin commune floating in the background. Then at last fortune smiles on him: he gets a job at the British Council; gets promotion; marries; takes a troupe of actors to Eastern Europe - and then at last, about a third into the book, he meets Sasha again, and the hapless and still rather naive Mundy suddenly finds himself in le Carré country of Cold War agents and double agents. He takes to it surprisingly well and effectively.

And then it's 1989 and the end of the Cold War. End of story? By no means: there are another 130-odd pages to go. True, Mundy's services and talents are no longer needed. For about a dozen years he runs an English-language school in Heidelberg which goes bankrupt; he then sinks so low as to become a jocular tour guide in one of King Ludwig's crazy Bavarian castles. There, in 2003, he meets Sasha once again, and a new adventure starts. 1989 has not, after all, been The End of History: wars that are far from cold have been instigated by unchecked, brainwashing international corporate capitalism. Munday feels passionately about that. So does Sasha. (So, obviously, does le Carré.)

I fear what follows lacks all credibility, but is for a while as satirically and rivetingly told as the earlier parts of the book, until we come to the grim but confusing climax and to le Carré's savage indictment of how shadowy powers smother their corrupt interests and foul deeds with the black arts of disinformation.
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on 29 July 2008
Based on the reviews on the back cover of this book, I expected a fast paced and intelligently written spy novel.

The book definitely meets the intellectual expectation, but severely struggles to gain any sort of momentum. I would happily trade some of the in-depth narrative for some quicker plot development.

To paint a better picture - I am not expecting a plot development on every page, and I have to stress the point that it is incredibly slow to develop. Halfway through the book you are left wondering if there was much point to what's already been read, it's almost like reading treacle.

The book does not suit slow readers. In order to make the most of it you need to get through it in large sittings so as to keep the interest flowing. For this reason, and the fact that it does not meet my expectations, I am giving the book 2 out of 5.

I hope this rating will deter anyone who has similar interests to mine. However, I am sure that fans of the author will enjoy the book and might consider a higher rating of 3 or 4 out of 5, but I strongly advise anyone who wants a casual novel to look elsewhere.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 13 May 2010
"Absolute Friends," a 2003 publication by renowned British spy author John LeCarre, is considered by many reviewers to be one of his greatest works. It surely is passionate, powerful, and well-written. It concerns the hapless Ted Mundy, whom we meet working as a tourist guide in southern Germany. He has been a spy for the U.K. during the great glory days of the Cold War; when the notorious cinder-block wall divided East from West Berlin, and the city was thick with spooks. He has honors and awards; but then the wall came down, East and West Germany reunited, somewhat unexpectedly, and he and friends were out of jobs. The Pakistan-born son of an unreliable, irresponsible, heavy-drinking British Army officer and an Irish nanny has, since then, tried to write, without success. He's also tried his hand at business, without success. Ditto, marriage. So we now find him grubbing a bare living, trying to support a beautiful, former prostitute common-law Turkish wife and son. We are, apparently, to believe that he's the sort who loves not wisely, but too well; though readers may fail to see anything in his background that would make him such a person.

At any rate, Mundy has knocked around, Asia, Europe, even America. He has been caught up in the great student unrest of the 1960s, particularly in Germany, where he had gone to study. He has made a lifelong friend of Sasha, a crippled East German leftwing activist: for many years, they've had an enjoyable, exciting, profitable game playing spy and counterspy for their respective governments. But the glory days are long gone when Sasha reenters Mundy's life, bringing the mysterious, billionaire philanthropist Dimitri with him. Will the friends make a killing or get themselves killed? The sources of Dimitri's money are entirely too obscure, as are his aims, and associates.

The first thing to say is, for better or worse, "Absolute Friends" certainly resembles the rest of its author's work. It has a reasonably complex, well-thought out, suspenseful plot. It's witty. Dialogue crackles. Narrative and descriptive writing are sharp, and the spy craft can't be beat. It opens with one of his marvelous set pieces, and closes with one that's even better. In almost every book, he mentions his rich upper class twits talking with Belgravia,(expensive neighborhood) or Roedean, (expensive school) versions of lower-class Cockney accents; this book mentions an American girl talking Vassar overlaid with a broad German accent. Like most of his later books, it's rather long, and slow in getting started. The book largely takes place in the author's German-speaking comfort zone. We have met irresponsible fathers several times before in his work (see A Perfect Spy,filmed by the BBC asA Perfect Spy: Complete BBC Series (3 Disc Box Set) [DVD], which in fact, it strongly resembles.) We've also met the crippled left wing East German spy, with whom he plays at spy/counterspy before: he was "Axel" in "A Perfect Spy." Heaven knows, we've seen the beautiful younger woman before. And, as is common in his later books, while the villains are obscure, the politics are quite overt.

But to me, the book most noticeably shows the influence of his early mentor Graham Greene. Greene famously believed that it was better to betray your country than your friend. So, apparently, does LeCarre, at least in this book. The odd thing is, in his earlier life as David Cornwell, actual spy, while in place behind the Iron Curtain, LeCarre was betrayed to the Russians by Greene's great and good friend, the most famous of British double agents, Kim Philby. It did not have fatal consequences in LeCarre's case, as it did for others, and might have for him. But it essentially ended his field career. And LeCarre's earlier, celebrated "Karla" trilogy, about chasing a double agent through the Circus, his name for the spy bureau, makes clear that he wasn't too pleased about any of it at the time.
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on 21 February 2004
I wonder if I've been reading the same book as everyone else. Perhaps it's all in the timing - the sleeve describes this as "a fable almost of our hours". That's no exaggeration, thar's exactly what it is, and as a result it's already horribly out of date.
The bulk of the book - following the bizarre life of Ted Mundy from the 60's upto this year - is rather less elegantly told than le Carré's usual stories. It's written in the present tense, and jumps through the years in sections of sometimes less than a page, meaning there's no time for le Carré to develop the atmospheric settings and complex supporting cast that normally make his novels a cut above the average thriller.
There's also nothing really new in Ted Mundy's story. A large part is, naturally, spying, but it's uninspired run-of-the-mill spying with not a single moment where le Carré really builds the tension. There's no mystery, no imminent danger. I was willing to forgive all this provided the book's present-day conclusion drew all the strings together in a suspenseful climax. Instead, the story hits a dead end in a way that shocked me. The dramatic final third I was bargaining on was nothing more than yet another simple and soulless story, devoid of heroism or clever twists. My impression is that the entire novel is a build up to its final few pages, which are, to be perfectly honest, dreadful.
Without spoiling anything for you, the problem is that le Carré has forgotten he's writing a thriller, published in late 2003. He thinks he's writing a newspaper article, published just after the Iraq War. If I had to compare this to any one thing, it would not be a classic le Carré story like The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, it would be Robert Kilroy-Silk's famous "Arabs" article. If printed when it was meant to be (at the height of an international crisis) the "fable" would have offered an interesting political slant on real events. Printed now, when we've had time to put the events of last year in context, the conclusion of Absolute Friends reads like a pathetic left-wing tirade against the media and against America's foreign policy. Similarly to Kilroy's article, it seems so inappropriate as to verge on offensive - and this is from a reviewer who opposed the Iraq War.
The result is that the story simply fails to be a believable thriller, and becomes a "fable" with political bias, like any good fable blown out of all proportion. The fake newspaper articles le Carré quotes as part of his story appear ludicrously unrealistic, and overall I felt them screaming at me "This story is silly. It's not the real world."
That's one thing I never thought I would think while reading a le Carré novel.
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on 19 January 2004
John le Carre has written a thrilling book, that once again shows that he is the master of spy novels. He has created two different characters and set their story during four decades of espionage. It is a reminder of how dramatically the world has changed since the sixties, when Ted and Sasha begin their friendship in divided Berlin.
Le Carre's writing reflects this change as the cold war ends and a new confusing world order emerges dominated by terror. This is a new and more sinister world, where life for agents becomes even more uncertain and treacherous. The ending was rather contrived, but does not detract from the central theme of the novel aptly titled Absolute Friends.
This book is far more romantic and emotional than le Carre's other cold war books and this is due to the relationship between the two central characters, both outcasts in their different ways. It carries on the best traditions of the cold war spy thriller into a new era.
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VINE VOICEon 4 June 2004
In the beginning of Absolute Friends, I found myself wondering why Mr. Le Carre had put together such an unusual resume for his main character, Ted Mundy. Be patient with those details because Mr. Le Carre uses every one of them to develop his most intricate plot ever. This book will continue to surprise you with its plot twists and will reward careful reading. Those who have a very cynical view of the motives behind the invasion of Iraq in 2003 will love this book.
Brought up without a mother and with a distant father whose life was on the skids, Ted Mundy found himself looking for emotional connection. With a strong sympathy for the underdog and the oppressed, he finds himself some unusual friends among the radical community of his youth. Made of stern stuff, he willingly engages in helping them and becomes closely involved with antiauthoritarian Sasha in West Berlin. That unexpected connection becomes the central pivot of his life from then on. Try as he might to avoid it, he and Sasha are permanently linked through that youthful friendship. In essence, Ted Mundy's life becomes a resume that others are willing to interpret as supporting their views . . . and he finds himself unexpectedly draw into the espionage battles of the Cold War. Even after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mundy's past becomes valuable to those who want to create new perceptions today. In the process, Mundy finds his good intentions and friendship unintentionally subverted.
The jacket copy for this book is misleading. It suggests that the story is mostly about the mysterious Dimitri, the idealistic billionaire who wants to recruit Ted Mundy. Except for a brief introduction, that section of the book comes only at the end. Most of the book deals with a flashback into Mundy's life before meeting Sasha and his involvement with Cold War spying. A lot of the action occurs behind the Iron Curtain, and pieces of the book will remind you of Mr. Le Carre's marvelous stories about espionage into East Germany.
The book has an Achilles heel though in that Mr. Le Carre needs such an unusual combination of characters that the plot builds on what seemed to me to often be dense, unrealistic details. I kept wondering why he was making up such preposterous backgrounds for his characters. In the end, all became clear . . . but the story's eventual ending could have been told without all the background. The book feels like two books, loosely bound together by a limited tether three-quarters of the way through. Without the last section, this could have been a five-star Cold War book. With a simpler development of the last section, this could have been a four-star book about political chicanery. I found the way they were bound together was just too big a stretch for me. I found myself focusing on the author's plotting, rather than just accepting the story. I do, however, admire the mind that could put all these pieces together.
If you are like me, the ending will leave you stunned and feeling queasy. Mr. Le Carre has a powerful message for us about the dangers of believing that everything is what we are told. Be skeptical!
As I finished the book, I wondered again about the proper balance among our responsibility to ourselves, our loved ones and our loyalties to greater causes. Mr. Le Carre seems to suggest that we shouldn't be so idealistic . . . the price is too high. But isn't our idealism what makes us noble and admirable? Perhaps he means nothing more than that we shouldn't abandon all else for our idealism.
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