Loyalty. Power. Love. Betrayal. Like all great writers, John Le Carré sticks to the classic grand themes. And, like his fellow masters of the espionage thriller, in each new work he returns to those themes with new questions, grounding his cloak-and-dagger tales in the romantic, political and psychological muck of the messy real world.
His latest, Absolute Friends, is a magnificent muddle of a book, spanning decades. Its central character, Ted Mundy, is immediately recognizable as a Le Carré creation, “a hybrid, a nomad, a man without territory, parents, property, or example.” When we first meet the divorced, 50-something Ted Mundy, Dubya’s war in Iraq has just begun, and Mundy’s eking out an existence as a freelance guide at a Bavarian castle, inventing anecdotes on the spot for busloads of gullible tourists. He lives with his young Turkish girlfriend, Zara, and her son, Mustafa. He drives a beat-up old VW Beetle. He plays soccer with the local kids. He seems a cultured, goodhearted nonentity.
Enter the manic and ever-theorizing anarchist Sasha, Mundy’s dearest friend, albeit one whom Mundy has neither seen nor heard from in 10 years. At this point, Le Carré embarks on a 200-page flashback, illustrating how Mundy and Sasha have been ideological brothers-in-arms and, at times, fellow spies, occasionally reuniting at crucial points in history.
Sasha ropes Mundy into an implausible anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-everything-bad scheme involving an absurdly rich pseudo-leftist shipping magnate named Dimitri, and, from the moment Mundy entertains the notion of joining up with the shadowy troupe of cultists surrounding the billionaire, Absolute Friends becomes a gripping countdown to our supremely flawed protagonist’s doom.
Ultimately, though, Absolute Friends is notable not for its plot, nor for its delineation of character, but for its rage. The book veers perilously close to polemic at times, as the author gives voice to his disgust with U.S. hegemony and arrogance, his “anger at seeing the show come round again one too many times.” Mundy, so reminiscent of other disillusioned Le Carré heroes (especially the indelible Jerry Westerby of The Honourable Schoolboy), is a man mired in history, and in the end far too goodhearted, too empathetic — in a word, too liberal — to emerge unscathed.
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ABSOLUTE FRIENDS | By JOHN LE CARRÉ | Little, Brown & Co. 400 pages | $27 hardcover