Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Book Review: Absolute Friends

Absolute Friends, by John le Carré, is a well written, gripping, ultimately infuriating book. It's the story of two friends: Ted Mundy, a British boomer born in Pakistan at the time of Partition, and Sasha, a radical German gadfly.

The book is roughly divided into thirds. The first part follows Mundy from birth, through a meandering adolescence, to the time he first meets Sasha in a 1960s West Berlin commune. Sasha is the intellectual leader of the commune. Mundy is a chameleon, trying on different ideologies. Although polar opposites, Mundy and Sasha form a strong bond. They are abruptly separated when one of their student demonstrations ends in violence.

The middle third of the book starts more than ten years later when Sasha reappears to draw Mundy into the Cold War espionage game. Somehow Sasha has become a member of the East German Stasi machinery. He enlists Mundy for a complicated double spy operation. I won't tell you who is really spying for whom.

The third act finds Mundy and Sasha together again after another separation of ten years. Both have been drifting since the Cold War ended, but Sasha has found a new patron, a mysterious billionare named Dmitri. Many reviewers have said Le Carré falters in this part of the book. Oddly enough, I think it is the most compelling part. The first and second parts are masterful set pieces describing 1960s West Berlin and Cold War espionage respectively, but the last part picks up the pace considerably. Mundy is drawn into a plot murkier than anything he experienced during the Cold War. Who is Dmitri? Is his scheme a front for a terrorist operation? Does Sasha know more than he is telling?

It's great stuff -- up until the last ten pages. I won't give away the ending, but it comes out of left field. Le Carré apparently contrived the ending to warn the dear reader about the true menance in our post-9/11 world. And Le Carré's politics are definitely left of center, if not left of Michael Moore.

Some reviewers have cited Le Carré's bias in dialog like this about the War in Iraq:
"It was an old Colonial oil war dressed up as a crusade for Western life and liberty, and it was launched by a clique of war-hungry Judeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America's post-9/11 psychopathy."
You certainly can't assume Le Carré believes that line of dialog. If he does, he picked a strange mouthpiece. The character who recites the line doesn't even believe it. However, throughout the book Le Carré implies that American leaders, particularly Christian American leaders, are the real extremists. And he certainly believes it is now Europe's duty to counter the world's lone superpower.

All in all, Absolute Friends is a brilliant book -- well worth reading. I just think Le Carré is worried about the wrong bogeyman. But I have the benefit of hindsight. Le Carré's book was originally published before the terrorist bombings in Madrid and London.

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