Title: Absolute Friends
Author: John Le Carré
Le Carré, John (2004). Absolute Friends. London: Hodder & Stoughton
PR6062.E33 A65 2004
- Tour guides (Persons)–Fiction.
- College teachers–Fiction.
- Male friendship–Fiction.
Date Posted: April 6, 2017
Reviewed by Michiko Kakutani
Absolute Friends, John le Carré’s ham-handed and didactic new novel, is really three very different books.
It is an old-fashioned bildungsroman, tracing the sentimental and moral education of a typical le Carré hero as he is drawn into the shadowy world of espionage during the Cold War and an even murkier world of terrorists and political operatives in the new millennium.
It is also a far-fetched action-adventure-thriller with nerve-racking cat-and-mouse games with double agents, a frightening reconnaissance mission and a bloody shootout with SWAT teams and special forces. And last and most disappointing, it is a clumsy, hectoring, conspiracy-minded message-novel meant to drive home the argument that American imperialism poses a grave danger to the new world order.
The plot has been constructed to illustrate this message, and it not only feels hastily jerry-built but ridiculously contrived as well. Whereas Mr. le Carré’s Smiley novels were famous for their nuanced depiction of the ambiguities of the Cold War and their demythologizing of the grubby world of spying, this latest novel suffers from large heapings of sentimentality and naïveté.
It is simplistic where his earlier novels were sophisticated; dogmatic where those books were skeptical. Paradoxically enough, it also purveys the same sort of black and white moralism that Mr. le Carré’s nemesis, the Bush administration, is so fond of, and it does so not by persuasively dramatizing the author’s convictions but by bashing the reader over the head with dubious assertions and even more dubious scenarios.
The one persuasive (if highly familiar) element in Absolute Friends is Mr. le Carré’s psychological portrait of Ted Mundy, another of his “perfect spies,” a man whose ad hoc family life and craving for acceptance have made him a perfect candidate for the world of espionage.
Born on the Indian subcontinent to a British colonial family—his mother died immediately after his birth—Mundy always feels like an outsider, filled with loathing for Britain’s imperial past yet eager to belong to something larger than himself. His sense of identity is tentative at best: he has had a succession of careers as a would-be artist, would-be teacher, would-be radical but always remains something of a pretender at heart.
Although not particularly political by nature, Mundy is drawn into a circle of radicals in the 1960s, largely through chance encounters with people he falls under the sway of: a German teacher who takes an interest in him; a “polyglot Hungarian spitfire” named Ilse who initiates him into the mysteries of sex and antiwar politics; a woman named Judith who stokes his anti-establishment fervor; and above all his “absolute friend,” an impassioned utopian anarchist named Sasha.
Throughout the years “Mundy plays Boswell to Sasha’s Johnson and Sancho Panza to his Quixote.” Much like Tim and Larry in Mr. le Carré’s 1995 novel Our Game, Mundy and Sasha are an odd couple—a pragmatist and a romantic, a lost soul and ardent dreamer. And much like Tim and Larry, they both end up becoming spies. Mundy regards Sasha as “his secret sharer,” his mentor and alter ego.
Though it’s easy enough to understand how the insecure Mundy could fall under the spell of a charming visionary, Sasha is such a pompous windbag (of proportions that make even the chattiest of Philip Roth’s characters seem downright laconic) that the reader quickly begins to tire of his long spiels—about the corrupting materialism of the imperialistic West, about the sanitization of Germany’s Nazi past, about factional disputes within the left, about his hatred for his own father.
Mr. le Carré has never been particularly adept at portraying idealists. Recall the difficulties he had with the humanitarian scientist in The Russia House and the saintly Tessa in The Constant Gardener. And Sasha always remains more of a garrulous idea of a character than a credible human being.
There are similar problems with the plot of Absolute Friends. While Mr. le Carré uses his intimate knowledge of spies and spycraft to infuse the adventures of Mundy and Sasha during the Cold War with suspense and verisimilitude, the story grows increasingly preposterous as they enter the post-Cold-War era. The narrative begins to lurch awkwardly from one set piece to another, mechanically underscoring themes that the author has addressed with far greater finesse in earlier novels: betrayal of a friend versus betrayal of a cause, filial anger and resentment as Freudian motivations for political convictions and reversals, identity as both a process and a performance art.
To make matters worse, many of the people in the later sections of the book no longer converse but simply trade angry political screeds: “It was an old Colonial oil war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty,” one character says of the Iraq war, “and it was launched by a clique of war-hungry Judeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America’s post-9/11 psychopathy.”
We are asked to believe that after 10 years of being out of touch with Sasha, Mundy would endanger his happy new life in Germany with his Turkish lover and her son for the sake of taking part in Sasha’s latest cockamamie scheme. We are asked to believe that Mundy—who was once a spy, trained in counterintelligence—would buy into an absurd proposition from a sinister billionaire named Dimitri, who spouts anti-American polemics and plans to establish a “Counter-University” to build an “ever-growing army of renegades.” And we are asked to believe that these developments all feed into a noisy and violent conflagration serving American neoimperialist ends.
That Absolute Friends ends up being such a thoroughly implausible performance is less a sign that John le Carré, as often charged, has been unable to adapt his fiction to the post-Cold-War world. Rather, it’s a sign that he has not chosen in this volume to use his rich and myriad gifts as a writer in the service of storytelling but has instead elected to deliver a blustering and ungainly editorial that turns his characters into a ventriloquist’s sheepish puppets.