A Near Perfect Spy Novelist
ABSOLUTE FRIENDS. By John le Carré. Little, Brown. 455 pp. $26.95.
A year ago now, when the Bush Administration was preparing the world for an American invasion of Iraq, John le Carré wrote a column of scathing, sharp-toothed commentary for the Times of London. “America has entered one of its periods of historical madness” the piece began, “worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam war.” The master of espionage fiction went on to assert that “the religious cant that will send American troops into battle is perhaps the most sickening aspect of this surreal war-to-be.” In a full-throated critique of “the Bush junta,” le Carré rejected the with-us-or-with-the-terrorists choice Washington offered the rest of the planet and regretted, most of all, the world’s failure to construct any middle ground in the matter of Saddam Hussein. “Im dead against Bush,” he wrote, “but I would love to see Saddam’s downfall–just not on Bush’s terms and not by his methods. And not under the banner of such outrageous hypocrisy.”
One may not want to begin a consideration of any author’s fiction with reference to his political views. A novel is an implicitly transformative work, after all, and a novelist’s opinions as to the nature of public events are something altogether different. But it is too tempting to relate the two in le Carré’s case. Both the author and the commentator have become increasingly and openly political in recent years. And le Carré doesn’t seem to want readers to miss this point. His most recent book, The Constant Gardener, was a frontal attack on the Third World testing practices of the global pharmaceutical giants, and he chose to add a pointed postscript. “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed,” he wrote, “I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”
Absolute Friends, le Carré’s nineteenth novel in a career that now spans five decades, arrives with no such label attached, but it doesn’t need one. Through the thoughts and conversations of its main characters, le Carré takes on everything from Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler and the partition of British India to the Shah of Iran, the Greek colonels, the Vietnam War and, yes, last year’s invasion of Iraq. Very little of the postwar era is left out, and one is left wondering about the extent to which le Carré has made himself a ventriloquist in this book, speaking more directly through his invented voices than longtime devotees of his fiction might expect.
My guess, with a batch of le Carré’s not infrequent newspaper commentaries at my elbow, is that the main characters in this book–the absolute friends of the title-can often enough be taken to speak quite explicitly for their creator. Like him, they stand for a middle way in the many divisions that beset the world we have made for ourselves–between East and West during the Cold war, between American hegemony and Europe’s so far supine response to it in the post-cold war years, between Islam and the West. Call it convergence, as we used to before the Berlin wall came down, or call it multilateralism, as we do now. When le Carré’s protagonist, Ted Mundy, and his longtime friend Sasha speak of these matters it is hard not to hear something of le Carré’s thinking in what they have to say.
But if Absolute Friends were no more than an exhaustive critique of postwar history it would hardly be worth its weight as a work of fiction. And for all the prominence le Carré gives politics in this book, it would be a misreading to make too much of it. In this respect le Carré is coming to resemble Graham Greene, which lands him in elevated company. Greene was probably further left than le Carré, but that is not the point. Political perspective is everywhere evident in the work of both writers–an animating force, if you like. But who would ever think to call the output of either “political novels”?
Absolute Friends is the biggest book le Carré has written since his 1986 masterpiece, A Perfect Spy, and is nearly as successful. Yes, there’s plenty of espionage in both novels. But in the end the politics and the spying are background–devices, in a word–for these are genre novels that triumph by transcending the genre and giving us something close to important literature. The old triumvirate–plot, character and theme–ate once again superbly balanced in Absolute Friends. Ted Mundy is every bit as complex as Magnus Pym, the perfect spy of A Perfect Spy. So is Sasha, Mundy’s joined-for-life counterpart from their student days in the 1960s until they meet their tragic ends together in our time.
Who is Ted Mundy? As he did with Pym in A Perfect Spy, le Carré plants this question at the core of Absolute Friends. Son of a British Army officer who served in pre-partition India, he is a wayward Brit, “all things to all men and nothing to himself?’ After drifting through an English boarding school and a couple of years at Oxford, Mundy wanders into the student movement in West Berlin, which is where he meets Sasha and forms a friendship so close that they make a Janus of themselves. Having tried and failed as a writer, Mundy stumbles into a position at the British Council, and it is from the bowels of Britain’s cultural bureaucracy that he falls into the espionage racket, using his radical credentials to infiltrate East German intelligence. Sasha, meanwhile, infiltrates the East German Stasi and begins feeding information to the West through Mundy. When the wall crumbles, they set to work with the intent of furthering a sort of nonaligned Europe, a “crucible of peace” as Sasha puts it at one point.
Both men have been discarded by their respective masters since the end of the cold war. Mundy is given seed money to launch a language school in Heidelberg–another failed venture soon enough–while Sasha becomes an itinerant lecturer at second-tier universities in some of the world’s grimier metropolises. “So we’re bereft,” Mundy commiserates when again they meet: “Two Cold War bums on the skids. Is that who we are, Sasha?” It’s fearfully close to the truth for Mundy, but for his part Sasha is having none of this. “You think the war’s over because a bunch of old Nazis in East Germany have traded Lenin for Coca-Cola?” he asks his friend. “Do you really believe that American capitalism will make the world a sweet safe place? It will pick it dry.”
So do the two make the transition from cold war espionage to a post-cold war project. (And so does le Carré write himself out of the cold war box some of his post-wall novels suggested he was trapped in.) Reflecting the preference for multiethnicity he was born into, Mundy has by now begun a tenderly described relationship with a Turkish prostitute, gotten her off the street and made himself stepfather to her son. So he has finally found something authentic to live for. But he is drawn back into the game nonetheless. Together, Sasha and Mundy hook up with a shrouded-in-fog figure named Dimitri, a Saudi-funded Georgian dedicated to educating the world out of its “enslavement… by corporate-military alliances.” The notion is to create “corporation-free academic zones,” as Dimitri explains, “seminaries of unbought opinion.” At this point we are treated to a lengthy diatribe against globalization and what is cast as its grotesque outgrowth, the war on terror. “We’re looking at the oldest America in the book” Dimitri tells Mundy. “Puritan zealots butchering savages in the name of the Lord–how do you get older than that? It was genocide then, it’s genocide today, but whoever owns the truth owns the game.”
Sasha and Mundy never quite take possession of the game; in the end their vision of a better world gets them both murdered in spectacular fashion–with film at 11 arid all the rest. Absolute Friends is rather fatalistic in this respect. Le Carré seems to suggest that there is little hope, in our media-manipulated world of appearances, that rational thinking can triumph over the connivances of corporate-funded politicians who find fearful populaces their surest way of retaining power. It’s bleak as an assessment of our present circumstances, but it is scarcely unbelievable.
But here we must depart from mere plot and recognize that Absolute Friends derives its power primarily from character-and that, more than in most of his books, le Carré has drown from his own life and experience. This is what distinguishes both Absolute Friends and A Perfect Spy from le Carré’s other work. And it is in this respect that the similarities between Mundy and Magnus Pym offer us a considerable clue.
It is no secret to le Carré’s admirers that A Perfect Spy is the most directly autobiographical of his novels, especially as the novelist painted in Pym’s family background. While the surface details are altogether different, it is fundamentally the same in Absolute Friends. The itinerant swindler who was Pym’s father becomes the declining ex-army officer who is Ted Mundy’s. And both of these tumbledown dads produce large-hearted, too-eager-to-please offspring who cannot but drown in the chaos of contemporary history. The incidental correspondences between Pym and Mundy are many: the motherless childhoods, the affectionately remembered nannies, the student years in German-speaking Europe. These are all further clues to what le Carré is up to in Absolute Friends. But the larger point is the lostness of both Pym and Mundy. They never quite find themselves because they possess, finally, no real selves to find.
Is it because le Carté draws water from the well he knows best that his style is at its most fluid in Absolute Friends? It seems so tome. This book shows le Carré to be near the height of his powers precisely because, as one senses from the start, he was entirely at home with his material as he wrote it-fully in his own skin. His language has never been freer, and his jumps back and forth across time are seamless. Nor has he ever been more agile in switching from voice to voice as he sketches in the details of his characters. There is only one weak point in the plot, so far as I can make out. Mundy’s encounter with Dimitri is a necessary bridge from one phase of the novel to the next. But it’s something of a stretch. You hear a few too many gears creaking as you make your way through the Dimitri passages. It mars the book–even if slightly–and you find yourself wishing le Carré had found a better way to move the narrative forward from the long history of his two absolute friends into their (and our) tempestuous present.
One of the most striking features of Absolute Friends is its ambition, which can be measured across any number of dimensions. It is not just his willingness to carry his characters through the whole of the postwar era–an endeavor not too many novelists could carry off with as much grace as le Carré musters. In the course of this, incidentally, he gives us a marvelous rendering of how the 1960s generation managed to morph from manning the barricades into lawyering and administrating and teaching and licking envelopes for established political parties. More important, however, is le Carré’s steady and masterful interweaving of the personal and the public, political lives of both Mundy and Sasha. In the end, Absolute Friends is about identity–like many of his other novels, including A Perfect Spy. But let o us understand this point well. Le Carré’s concern is our various, changing, eternally ambivalent selves. We are condemned-or have condemned ourselves, he perhaps wants to tell us–to a world in which all the choices we have allowed ourselves are inadequate: Those we would make with conviction we have put beyond our grasp.
Absolute Friends is, once again, a novel that reaches vastly beyond the genre fiction for which le Carré is noted. But he deploys all the best features of his espionage novels to make his new book as effective as it is. Given the primacy of character in Absolute Friends, the spy game is ultimately a backdrop—or a proscenium, perhaps. But decades Of literary learnings are on display here. And in staying with espionage le Carré raises a couple of interesting questions.
Intentionally or otherwise, Absolute Friends is an announcement that the cold war is at last passing into history. But how are we to understand our common memory of it–and, more to the point, how have we been marked by it? Equally, is the espionage genre somehow becoming the best source of novels that engage both politics and history? With the Modernist era now behind us and its worthwhile lessons absorbed, are spy novels among those that speak most directly to us of the way we live now? If so, why would this be? Is it because we, like Mundy, are forever caught in a world of appearances and dense, undiscerned realities? Whether he means to say so or not, le Carré seems to have clear answers to these questions. And he offers them to us on a great deal more than holiday postcards.