One of my resolutions for 2012 is to read popular authors whose works, for one reason or another, I’ve never got round to. The first on my list was John Le Carré.
To really put him to the test, I chose one of his more obscure novels about a subject I myself know quite well. Le Carré’s 2004 novel Absolute Friends, rushes readers pell-mell from Cold-War to post-9/11 Germany. Despite the speed of the plot, the depictions of place and time are nearly dead perfect.
The main protagonist is a directionless, socially isolated son of a British colonialist, Ted Mundy. As the novel’s title suggests, the plot revolves around three friendships he makes, all of which are sealed over a drink or two.
The first is with a left-wing house squatter named Sascha in the wild-and-wooly district of Kreuzberg in 1970s West Berlin. An ex-girlfriend gives him a letter of introduction:Mundy unfastens the buckles of his kitbag, extricates Ilse’s bottle of St. Hugh’s Buttery Scotch whisky and pours two shots.
Sascha perches opposite him on a wooden stool, pulls on a pair of spectacles with thick black frames and settles to a purposeful examination of Ilse’s letter…
Yet Mundy does indeed prove reliable, to the point of his being beaten by West Berlin police and subsequently expelled from West Germany after a bust-up at a radical demonstration.
"He has something wise and important to say about the past 40 years of history"
The British diplomat who rescues the naïve youngster from this fix, Nicholas Amory, becomes Mundy’s next friend. Amory later recruits him to MI6 to work with Sascha, now a double agent in Communist East Germany.
Cloak-and-dagger hijinks ensue, and Mundy proves up to the task, if only just barely:Mundy answers Amory’s questions brilliantly for an hour, then raggedly for another, before he starts to doze off for want of oxygen in the womb. Back in the reception room where he waits for Amory to dispose of the tape, he falls fast asleep, barely wakes for the short car journey to wherever Amory is taking him, and comes round to discover he is shaved and showered and holding a whisky-and-soda in his hand…
Mundy’s circle of friends expands again, when a CIA agent named Jay Rourke arrives on the scene. They discover they have a lot in common:Their dinners at Eaton Place have a different, but equally infectious sort of intimacy. The routine never varies. My house is swept weekly, Rourke assures Mundy, and I’m not talking about the cleaning lady. After a couple of Martinis –Rourke calls them belts – they get down to the nitty-gritty…
The nitty-gritty is how to combat an enemy.
All’s well that ends well in this tale of espionage and male bonding? Not on your life. Mundy is about to learn that the last war is but a prelude to the next one.
As someone who lives near where the Berlin Wall once stood, I’m quick to irritate when writers get the city wrong. Le Carré gets it right. The fact that he has something wise and important to say about the past 40 years of world history only made me like him all the more.