Absolute Friends

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Absolute Friends by John le Carré (Hodder & Stoughton, 2003).

John le Carré has written many novels about Cold War espionage, but he has generally stuck to two major themes.

The first is the sheer pointlessness of spying, the waste of blood and treasure in pursuit of secrets that are no use to anyone. Whether this is a fair criticism of actual Cold War espionage, I don’t know, but it intensifies the emotion of le Carré’s tragic plots and makes for compelling stories. To this end, le Carré never discusses the actual intelligence gathered at such cost to his characters: the spy delivers the secrets but does not know what they are. For his characters, it’s a matter of faith that what they are doing is valuable, but le Carré signals to the reader that they are sadly deluded.

When we do learn what secrets the spies are gathering, it’s because they are secrets about spies, secrets about secrets. Karla has a spy in the Circus: what does he learn? The identity of British spies behind the Iron Curtain. Smiley persuades Karla to defect. What does he learn? The identity of Karla’s spies in the West. It’s an incestuous game, with devastating consequences for the players, but one with no impact on the wider world. Again, not necessarily a perfectly fair historical summary, but a devastatingly effective storytelling technique.

The second theme is the psychological impact of spying on the spies. Often losers or loners to begin with, they never prosper. The maintenance of a double life: the building up of a fictional identity, of burying one’s true beliefs: the constant lying, to friends, to family, to children and colleagues: the stress of being under surveillance, both from (notional) friends and (supposed) foes: the impossibility of receiving public recognition for one’s services. Le Carré’s spies—when they are not killed in the line of work—suffer depression, breakdowns, broken families, and betrayal. Even the books that end with an apparent success—Smiley’s People, for example—have a melancholy air. (Smiley decides that he’s going to finally leave his wife.)

Absolute Friends starts out as a reprise of these themes. The friends of the title are Ted Mundy and Sasha. Both have troubled relationships with their fathers. Mundy’s father, a British military officer in Pakistan, was so ashamed of his marriage to a poor Irishwoman that after she died giving birth, he lied about her to his son, pretending that she was upper class. Sasha’s father is a Lutheran Pastor and a former Nazi.

Both men, running away from their families, end up as student radicals in Berlin in 1969 where they meet and become “absolute friends”. After the brutal suppression of the revolution, they go their separate ways: Sasha to East Germany, where he is recruited by the Stasi; Mundy to a bourgeois job with the British Council, a wife and family. But when Sasha decides to turn double agent, the only man he will trust to be his contact is his old friend Mundy. And Mundy, for the sake of friendship, allows himself to be recruited as a double agent too: his radical background persuades the Stasi that he can be trusted, when he is really working for MI6. Secrets are delivered, though it’s never clear what they might be.

The necessary duplicity destroys Mundy’s marriage and career prospects, and when the Berlin Wall comes down in 1989 both characters are left high and dry by the retreating tide of the Cold War. Mundy teaches English in Germany until his school goes bust, then ekes a living as a tour guide; Sasha disappears for years, only to reappear with a new and tempting offer for Mundy.

So far everything has followed a plan that’s very familiar to the reader from other le Carré novels. The banked fires of youthful radicalism have been turned into the psychological basis of two double agents. There’s been careful attention to the business of spying—the ‘tradecraft’ in le Carré’s coinage—“The ethics of the Edinburgh School of Deportment now require Mundy to ask a number of routine questions of his field agent before they settle down to the business of the day, and Mundy the natural has them waiting in his head: What is the cover for this meeting? What is the fallback if we are interrupted? Do you have any immediate anxieties? When shall we next meet? Do you see people you recognise, and did they follow you here?” There have been some arch portraits of minor characters, such as Mundy’s ex-wife, who becomes a Labour MP and abandons her principles: “They talk about Jake’s schooling. In Jake’s case only, Kate is half decided to waive her objection to private schools.”

Then, in a sudden departure from form, the real world bursts the bubble of familiarity. Sasha’s tempting offer for Mundy is a CIA black operation, designed to provoke German support for the invasion of Iraq by framing Sasha and Mundy as Islamic terrorists. CIA special forces quickly murder the pair of friends, and the book closes with an account of the smear campaign to blacken their names.

It’s a shocking plot maneouvre, and very effective. Of course the resulting impression—of gentlemanly Cold War espionage constrasted with New World Order violence and dirty tricks—is hardly a fair one: the Cold War and its proxy hot wars were just as violent and dirty. But as a way of dramatizing le Carré’s opinions about American intelligence involvement in the Iraq war it works very well.

Nonetheless, Steven Poole is right when he observes that something goes wrong with the narrative voice towards the end of the book. Le Carré is finding it hard to keep his political anger in check, so that the characters become ranting mouthpieces for his views, and this spills over into the narration: “It’s the discovery, in his sixth decade, that half a century after the death of Empire, the dismally ill-managed country he’d done a little of this and that for is being marched off to quell the natives on the strength of a bunch of lies, in order to please a renegade hyperpower that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment.” Substitute “eighth” for “sixth” and this could be le Carré instead of Ted Mundy.

A number of contemporary (2003) reviewers of the novel felt the need to attack le Carré’s political opinions themselves, not just the clumsy way they take over the novel.

Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times poured scorn on the plausibility of the ending. “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…” (Ms Kakutani must have been skimming at that point, because Mundy doesn’t buy into it at all: he is so suspicious that he reactivates his contact with MI6, and eventually agrees to go along with the proposition because he’s been led to believe that in doing so he will be spying on it for the CIA.) “… And we are asked to believe that these developments all feed into a noisy and violent conflagration serving American neoimperialist ends.” Well, yes: the plot as described is basically a fictionalised version of the assassination of Fred Hampton.

George Walden, writing in the Telegraph, called le Carré’s politics “trite and simplistic” and insinuated that he was a 9/11 conspiracy theorist.

Daniel Johnson went for the jugular, also in the Telegraph: “Le Carré, though, has caught a bad dose of politics. What gets his eye glittering is his belief that the United States is now controlled by a ‘neo-conservative junta’, which is in league with ‘corporate media’. Having ‘appointed the state of Israel as the purpose of practically all policy’, the neo-cons will not stop their ‘war machine’ from wreaking havoc ‘until they have quelled the world’. This American junta’s ‘minstrel’ is Tony Blair, who apparently lied to his country out of a sycophantic desire to impress the Americans, than which there is ‘no bigger sin’.” (This is an awesome hatchet job, by the way: Johnson insinuated that le Carré had gone senile, was an anti-Semite, had lost his talent, was too old, suffered from class envy, was projecting his own failures onto his targets, etc. Read it and learn.)

With six years’ hindsight it seems to me that these critics look foolish and le Carré’s “crackpot conspiracy theories” (as Johnson put it) look rather more insightful.