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Absolute Friends    by John Le Carré order for
Absolute Friends
by John Le Carré
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2005 (2004)
Hardcover, Softcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I have enjoyed John Le Carré's spy novels for decades. Fortunately, his writing has aced the test of time, and he has not succumbed to either the repetition or the over-production that has affected the quality of later novels by other mature authors. In Absolute Friends, Le Carré still tells a smashing story, and more than ever, he tells one that makes us think hard and deep.

Ted Mundy is an affable fellow meandering through life in the guise of an offbeat English gentleman. He was born to 'two inarticulate souls trapped in the conventional cages of their time'. His formative 'pagan' days are spent with Pakistani village children. He ends up an English boarding school outcast, and learns to love German literature from Dr. Mandelbaum, who teaches him 'Better to be a salamander, and live in the fire.' Subsequently Ted drifts, 60s style, from one frying pan into the next fire. In 1969 Berlin, he meets the radical Sasha, who becomes his revolutionary mentor, though neither of them supports violence. Ted eventually settles into suburbia, travelling Europe on his job. After Sasha is seduced by the East Germans, he enlists Mundy as a Cold War double agent. When the Wall comes down, Ted refuses Sasha's invitation to carry on the fight 'Wherever hope's the only thing they can afford' and loses track of his friend.

Sasha shows up once more after Mundy has entered another phase of his life, with a new family (a young Muslim woman and her son) in Munich. Poor but personally content, Mundy feels betrayed by the country that he sacrificed so much to serve, one that he feels '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.' Though Ted's old ideals soon embroil him in Sasha's latest scheme, he begins to wonder why the money trail leads back to the Middle East. There is a US agent with 'a levitational self-belief that conveniently transcends the realities of human suffering' who believes that Sasha has taken 'the black road', a surprising betrayal, and events build to an inevitable conclusion. The author shows us its reality, followed by the media spin in its aftermath.

Whether you agree with his politics or not, Le Carré portrays individuals in cultures around the world with a clear vision; he never labels a people as the enemy. That integrity underpins Absolute Friends, an incendiary story about two passionate, flawed idealists - anti large corporations, big government, authority in general - who are used by others. He makes us like them, conveying a cynical sorrow for people trying to get it right and being crushed by powerful forces. Don't miss this one!

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