(reviewed by Sebastian Fernandez JUN 01, 2004)
"…and sees what he expects to see: Sasha's handwriting…The expression on Mundy's face as he memorizes its message is hard to parse. Resignation, anxiety and pleasure all play a part. A rueful excitement dominates. Thirty-four bloody years, he thinks. We're men of three decades. We meet, we fight a war, we separate for a decade. We meet again, and for a decade we're indispensable to each other while we fight another. We part for ever, and a decade later you come back."
More than forty years after the publication of his first book, John LeCarre delivers a novel that differs in several aspects from what we are used to. Even though there are elements of espionage in the story, the plot centers on the personality, feelings and thoughts of the main character, Edward (Ted) Mundy, a "normal guy" who ends up being a spy by pure coincidence.
The war in Iraq ended a month ago and Ted Mundy is extremely dissatisfied with the way the British government handled the situation. He is working as a guide at the Linderhof in Munich, when his partner in the Modern English Language School betrays him and runs away with the money, leaving him broke. Immediately after this event, he ends up wandering through the streets and meets a Turkish prostitute by the name of Zara. At this point, we start getting glimpses of Ted's personality and good-natured feelings, since he helps Zara and her eleven-year-old son, Mustafa, and ends up establishing a "family" with them. Both Zara and Ted are lost souls who find solace in each other, especially when Ted realizes his problems are negligible compared to the ones that Zara has. These two characters generate a level of sympathy in the reader similar to the one awoken by some of the characters in Fyodor Dostoevsky's novels, like Makar and Barbara in Poor Folk .
Just when Ted, Zara and Mustafa are settling down and starting to have a peaceful and happy existence, Sasha shows up at the Linderhof during one of the tours and surreptitiously slips a note to Ted requesting a meeting. At this stage we learn that these two men are linked by their past, since they both were double agents in the years of the Cold War. LeCarre goes on into a thorough description of Ted Mundy's origins as a spy, starting with his childhood in Pakistan, living with an alcoholic father, who refused to explain to his son who Ted's mother was. The unhappy kid only knows that his mother died while giving birth to him and consequently feels guilty about it and also eager to learn more about the character he idealizes. Only upon his father's death will Ted be able to find out some crucial details on this topic and on some events that depict who his father "really" was.
Moving on to Ted's youth, we find a person that is lost in this world, associating himself with any cause he encounters, starting with anarchism joining his girlfriend Ilse in her quest and moving on to communism and later socialism. At each of these points, we observe a young man that is completely influenced by the people he befriends and admires. When Isle refuses to marry him, he leaves Oxford to continue his studies in Berlin and upon arrival meets Sasha, the friend that will determine the characteristics of most stages in his future development. So strong is the relationship between Ted and Sasha, that Ted finally finds some stability and purpose in his life; but when he needs to leave Berlin, we again come upon an aimless person, who is willing to help anyone that crosses his path and fight for their cause.
LeCarre excels at presenting the human side of a character that will later become a spy "just by chance," evidencing that the espionage world is not only composed of cold calculating individuals, but there are some "normal" guys too. Mundy's desire of pleasing everyone around him makes him a spectator in his own life, and brings him close to the breaking point: "It's not my fault that I'm six different people." Once we fully understand the motivations, conflicts and hopes of our main character, the author brings us back to the present and to the details of Sasha's proposal.
Sasha encourages his friend to meet a mysterious man that goes by the name of Dimitri, and who will present Ted with a very tempting offer. This is the first time in which Mundy appears as more cautious and less gullible than what we have gotten used to throughout the previous events. Dimitri is angry about the lies the British and American governments have used to justify their attack of Iraq, and wants Ted's help in setting things right. One cannot help but feel that John LeCarre is using the Dimitri character to express his personal viewpoint on the war issue.
I must confess that I was pleasantly surprised by Absolute Friends, since I was expecting a pure spy thriller, but found instead a well-developed novel, with three-dimensional characters and an engaging and thought provoking plot. This is a work that clearly evidences that LeCarre is at a stage in his career in which he does not hold anything back and is willing to speak his mind. He has the advantage that he can use his masterful prose to convey what he wants to express.
- Amazon readers rating: from147 reviews
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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)
- The Incongruous Spy (1961)
- A Small Town in Germany (1968)
- The Naive and Sentimental Lover (1971)
- The Little Drummer Girl (1983)
- A Perfect Spy (1986)
- The Russia House (1989)
- The Secret Pilgrim (1991)
- The Night Manager (1993)
- Our Game (1995)
- The Tailor of Panama (1996)
- Single & Single (1999)
- The Constant Gardener (2001)
- Absolute Friends (2004)
- The Mission Song (2006)
- A Most Wanted Man (2008)
- Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
- A Perfect Spy (July 2011)
George Smily series:
- Call for the Dead (1961)
- A Murder of Quality (1962)
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963)
- The Looking Glass War (1965)
- Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974)
- The Honourable Schoolboy (1977)
- Smiley's People (1979)
Movies from books:
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1965)
- The Looking Glass War (1969)
- Tinker Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1979)
- The Little Drummer Girl (1984)
- The Russian House (1990)
- Perfect Spy (2000)
- The Constant Gardener (January 2006)
- The Novels of John Le Carre: The Art of Survival (November 1985)
- Smiley's Circus: A Guide to the Secret World of John Le Carre by David Monaghan (1986)
- The Spy Novels of John Le Carre: Balancing Ethics and Politics by Myron Aronoff (1998)
- Conversations with John Le Carre (2004)
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- The official website for John Le Carré
- Wikipedia page on John Le Carré
- The United State of America Has Gone Mad
- Guardian Unlimited interview with John Le Carré
- Salon.com interview with John Le Carre
- Kirjasto page on John Le Carré and his works
- Publisher page on Le Carré and The Tailor of Panama
- SMH.com.au review of Absolute Friends
- The New York Times review Absolute Friends
- Seattle Times review Absolute Friends
- BookReporter.com review of Absolute Friends
- Blog Critics review of The Mission Song
- Washington Post review of The Mission Song
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About the Author:
John Le Carre (David John Moore Cornwell) was born in 1931 in Poole, Dorset. After attending the universities of Berne and Oxford, he taught at Eton (1956-58) and spent five years in the British Foreign Service (1961-1964). He started writing novels in 1961. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, his third book, secured him a worldwide reputation.
He divides his time between Cornwall, England and the Continent.