Sunday, April 20, 2014

The Spying Game

Absolute Friends

By John Le Carre

It has been a while since I visited Le Carre land. But each time I return, I realize nothing fundamentally changes. The spies still live in a morally ambiguous world and the individual moral compass is often at odds with the official wisdom that defines good and bad. This tension between the individual and the state had its best moments in the Cold War era, though. In his more recent novels, Le Carre tends to be much more didactic with a very definitive point of view on the evil influence of corporations in modern day governments. This point of view still has its good moments - like in his The Constant Gardener, one of my all-time favourite Le Carre novels. Absolute Friends, however falls very short of this standard.

Ted Mundy is the British spy, one of Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, born in Pakistan to an English army officer. He spends his early years in the subcontinent, is sent to boarding school in England, then goes on to Oxford to learn German, dropping out to join the ‘60s left-wing protests in Berlin against the ‘bourgeoisie’ American view of the world. He befriends Sasha, a natural leader in these left-wing groups, a German who is rebelling against his Nazi-sympathiser father turned good Christian. Ted saves Sasha’s life in one of the protests that turn violent, but is forced to flee Germany, going back to his native England, where he joins the British Council, marries a local school teacher with ambitions of labour party politics, has a kid and in general is all set to lead an ordinary life. But it is not meant to be. Sasha returns, this time as a defector to East Germany, wanting to play the dangerous spy game. Ted becomes his handler, and a double agent, with the East Germans thinking him theirs while all the while it’s the other way round. He starts leading multiple lives, one Ted to his wife and family, one to the East Germans, and the third real one - that of a double agent. Sasha and he play this dangerous game for years...until one day the Berlin wall comes down and there is nothing left to play. Sasha disappears, Ted’s marriage falls apart, and the next we see him, he is living in Berlin again, this time with a Turkish immigrant and her son, working as a tour guide, trying to put a failed business behind him. But there is one more twist in his life. Sasha is back to try and recruit him into one of his idealistic plans for the world. But this end game turns out to be one twist too many. The plot begins to meander into one of the least credible parts of the story… and one is left feeling Le Carre was actually writing a different novel in the last part. It is a ridiculous end to an otherwise moderately-engaging story.

Ted Mundy is the quintessential Le Carre hero. Ordinary, every-day man, living a heroic life, unknown to the rest of the world - an unsung, unrecognized hero. Sasha is the friend, but he is a shadowy character, never completely clear in his motives and actions to the reader, a mystery influence on Ted. It is this blurry character that makes the whole plot somewhat vague and insubstantial. The other characters are all mostly props in the Ted and Sasha show. And it is a show that disappointing and strangely irritating - especially when you know what Le Carre can normally do with plot and character.

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