John le Carre : Absolute Friends

Le Carre

” “Tell him I sent you,’ she implores him as the train mercifully pulls out. He is a graduate but democratic. Everyone in Berlin knows Sasha,” which to Mundy sounds as convincing as everybody in Bombay knows Gupta ”

” “Go to Kruzeberg,” Ilse is howling after him, as he waves his last tragic farewells from the carriage window. “Ask for him there. And look after him Teddy“, she commands as a peremptory afterthought, which he has no time to explore before the train conveys him to the next stage of his life. ”

The next stage of his life would bring him in contact with Sasha, with whom he would become ‘Absolute Friends’. As the title suggests, this is a novel about an absolute relationship, a friendship that operates beyond common human logic.

The novel starts with Ted Mundy, acting as a guide for a German Castle, King Ludwig’s Linderhof, entertaining the English speaking tourists. He has found his soul mate in Zara, a Muslim single mother and loves her son Mustafa as his own. Into this idyllic scenery the past creeps in, in the form of his old friend Sasha. There starts the journey of novel, into Ted Mundy’s past, detailing his childhood, his adolescent years, his college years as a revolutionary, his career as a double agent for the British secret service, his marriage, the subsequent divorce upto the present. What happens after Sasha steps into Mundy’s life again forms the latter part of the novel. The past though occupies more space in the novel that the present.

Mundy and Sasha’s friendship starts in Berlin, in the heady hippie days of the 60s. Sasha is the charismatic leader to a group of anti-establishment youth, all set to change the way the world works. An unlikely bond develops between these two contrasting figures. Mundy, a tall and dull Englishman. Sasha, a short charismatic German with a limp. Philosophically too, we realize, as their lives move ahead, they are contrasting personalities. Mundy wants a mundane life but Sasha is the perennial revolutionary and cannot settle down. Yet each is drawn toward the other, first sharing their secret past and also sharing the woman in their lives.

The friendship, for those who look for logic in a relationship, is probably forged because both friends feel let down by their respective fathers. Mundy’s father, a disgraced Army major, hides the fact that Mundy was born to an Irish nurse-maid in India / Pakistan. Sasha hates his father, a Lutherian priest, revolting against his principles. This anger intensifies, when he discovers that his father is a spy for East Germany operating under the guise of a priest in West Germany. Le Carre has always been concerned with the father figures and the impact they have on their children. (His great novel, ‘The Perfect Spy’ is as much about the charlatan father as is it is about the protagonist.) Sasha is so angry with his father’s betrayal that he starts acting as a double agent, working for East German secret service but passing secrets to the British. In this endeavor he recruits Mundy as his counterpart in the British Secret Service. They work as spies till the collapse of the Berlin wall, an event which makes their job redundant.

The central theme of the book is the need for Mundy to ‘protect’ Sasha, which seems to be counter intuitive. For Mundy is the normal person and Sasha the leader. Yet, first Ilse and later another girl Mundy sleeps with say the same thing, “Look after Sasha”. It is as if the women have intuitively grasped that Sasha, the ever revolting kind, needs care and affection and that he is incapable of looking after himself. Mundy takes it upon himself to ‘protect’ Sasha, even thought that act puts him and those close to him in danger. While we can logically try to explain why Mundy does what he does, the truth is that such acts go beyond simple logical explanations. For human relationships most often are not based on logic.

Le Carre develops the character of Mundy is great detail, giving us all the details of his past while leaving Sasha an enigmatic figure. The past of Sasha is touched upon but not in any great detail. This makes the reader a spectator as far as the Mundy-Sasha relationship goes, leading to certain incomprehension as to why Mundy cannot let go of Sasha. This incomprehension is what adds depth to the novel.

Le Carre’s writing is brilliant, as usual. The unhurried nature of the narrative, the precise choice of words, the typical way in which secrets are revealed bit by bit and the slow build up to the inexorable climax are all vintage Le Carre. While the writing remains unchanged, the political stand of Le Carre has changed over the years. (Critics say that he now leans a bit left of the center compared to his Karla trilogy days.) Le Carre is angry with the unipolar world we live in, where Americans are the neo imperialists, with no nation ready to stand up and question them. He is angry with the growing nexus between the corporates and the state, leading to unbridled looting of resources. He is angry with the fact that the state’s power has grown to such an extent that the individual doesn’t seem to matter. In short, Le Carre is an angry man and he makes you feel the extent of his anger in this novel.

It is this anger and intrusion of his politics that I had a problem with in this novel. (It is very much possible that someone liked this novel for the political tone.) I felt the climax is a bit forced, as if Le Carre had to get to this climax so that he can express his views. What was till then a very human story takes a political tinge and that to certain extent diminishes the impact of the main thread. (Nowadays, it is very difficult to expect a non-political novel for Le Carre) My contention is that the climax would have been even more poignant without the political angle, the way ‘The Honorable Schoolboy’ was.

Purely from the perspective of Le Carre’s work, I would rate this above his later works like ‘Night Manager’ and ‘Our Game’. It does not reach the dizzy height of ‘A Perfect Spy’ but then that is an all-time classic. I would recommend this book to those who are already familiar with Le Carre. Those who aren’t must start with ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’.

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