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Absolute Friends, by John le Carré

reviewed by
Emad El-Din Aysha


While a devout fan of British spy novels in general and John le Carré in particular, I think he really overdid it in his latest novel, Absolute Friends. It is confusing, inept and cut short halfway through the events when things just begin to get interesting. (It beats around the bush even more than The Tailor of Panama). Nonetheless, it is disturbingly well-researched and thus deserves to be treated seriously. Le Carre is a former British intelligence officer who has had access to material and insights into international politics that are not be trifled with.[1] Moreover, he represents what could be called the British establishment’s ever latent anti-Americanism, people who never believed in the ‘special relationship’ and know full well how the British empire was dismantled by the US.[2]  Although technically a dying breed - his generation is passing away – le Carre is even more representative of a growing constituency in the UK, the younger anti-Americans who have emerged since Bush became president, even before 9/11.[3]

For the required role of anti-hero we behold Edward Mundy, an out of work British intelligence agent residing – predictably for le Carré – in Germany. Mundy is a former everything, from a former double agent for East German intelligence to a failed writer and musician to a bankrupt English teacher to a former flunky of the British Council who unsuccessfully tried to promote his country’s culture abroad.[4] Not to mention, a failed husband and father. (He spent so much time behind the iron curtain that his English wife got a divorce, making it easier for her to pursue her political career in Blair’s Labour Party, while his son only communicates via e-mail).

Above all, Mundy is a former student rebel, having cut his anti-imperialist teeth in Berlin of the 1960s, where he met his absolute friend, the mysterious leader of Berlin’s (passivist) anti-Vietnam protestors, Sasha. Mundy was dragged into the spy trade, sans kicking and screaming, by Sasha in the 1980s. Sasha lost hope in the European left at the close of the 1960s and joined the Stasi, only to switch sides again after finding that Communists are hypocrites too. He bumps into Mundy on one of the latter’s cultural escapades behind the iron curtain and their friendship resumes, in a new professional dimension. Both then are forced to close shop with the abrupt end of the Cold War. Sasha makes a run for it, disappearing before the Stasi HQ is torn down by angry protestors and spends the rest of his time traveling through Third World capitals warning everyone about the advent of the unipolar American colossus.

Mundy now ekes out an existence as a tour guide, living with a Turkish, Muslim girl (Zara), and her legitimate son (Mustafa) from an abusive criminal husband.  Mundy does this under the advice of the local ‘enlightened’ imam (no comment). Zara had originally ‘offered’ herself to him to scrape together enough to feed herself and her son. And to stay out of the reach of her incarcerated ex-husband’s Turkish gang. Mundy’s substitute family genuinely love, adore and admire him as he nurses them back to psychological health, a task made all the harder as his frail career goes into the pits. (His school intended to teach the German business executive class the language of globalization, English, but to no avail). Suddenly. Sasha reenters his drab, missionless life with an offer he knows Mundy can’t refuse.[5]

The ‘art’ of mismanaging empires

Mundy is very tall whereas Sasha is partly crippled from birth. This is a famous device in literature, the notion of the ‘crippled giant’, more specifically in le Carré’s case, Britain and/or Germany after WWII. Mundy is the British giant, with much to give to the world but no ability to do so while under the gaze of the two superpowers.[6] He embodies the quintessential Britain that has lost its empire and is searching for a role, usually substituting the glories of its past with its so-called special relationship with the US. Poor Sasha hails from the hub of a European civilization that has been rent by the Cold War.[7] When Sasha meets Mundy he condemns him for working as a tour guide in the palace of some former Bavarian king, describing the regent – in trademark Sasha fashion – as a ‘fascist’. I believe this is meant to be a condemnation of the current Germany as semi-fascistic in its stance towards Muslims, American imperialism and the violation of civil liberties in the war on terror. Once again le Carré is angry with the German giant, his adopted second country, for not living up to the better side of its past and le Carré’s highest expectations.

Mundy, moreover, is the illegitimate son of empire, scarred by his past. His long deceased (in childbirth) mother was Irish. Mundy’s father insists on telling him his mother was a British aristocrat. Mundy spent his childhood in India in the last days of the Raj in what would become Pakistan after the partition. His affection for the East, particularly the Islamic quadrant, is shown in his relationship with surrogate mother Aya – his Pakistani nanny – whose whole family was massacred by Hindus during the partition. Mundy’s father, although a British army officer, instilled a healthy hatred of British imperialism in his son, pointing out how the Brits washing their hands of their colonial responsibility led to the massacres.

Mundy is now making amends with the Turkish Zara and her son Mustafa, a relationship meant to exemplify the kind of relations that should but rarely do exist between Islam and the West. (He also had a Muslim sweetheart as a child). His inability to transform his feelings into literature and music reflects Britain’s inability to feel and voice the pains of the downtrodden of the world.[8]

Opposing blasts from the past

When Sasha (Russian for Alexander) makes his derring-do comeback he hitches up with an eccentric pacifist  billionaire named Dimitri. In James Bond-fashion Mundy is introduced to this highly unlikely figure – one of the weaker points of the narrative – at his plush mansion (later vacated and trashed). Dimirti  wants Mundy’s help to build a ‘Counter-University’ – an educational system that fights conformity and American imperialism. Mundy gladly signs up, only to be pulled aside later by an old associate, CIA man Rourke, who tells him that Dimitri is really an anarchist terrorist that they have been tracking forever. Dimitri has in mind creating a united terror front against the US, pooling the resources of both the European anarchists left over from the Cold War and the new Islamic fundamentalists. Or so says Rourke.[9]

The perplexed Mundy contacts his old superior who reveals that it’s all a ruse. Dimitri was indeed a terrorist but is now working with the Americans! Mundy quickly gets his ‘wife’ and her son out of harm’s way and tries to contact Sasha to warn him and help him escape. But Rourke has both Mundy and Sasha gunned down, snuffing the planned anti-university in the process. It’s hailed as a great success of the war on terror, the elimination of a couple of European terrorists trying to team up with Islamic fundamentalists. (The funds Dimitri provides for Mundy’s new university come from a Saudi bank account).

Mundy’s lady is interrogated by Turkish police because the Americans want someone else taking the blame for torture. (When Mundy himself is nabbed by Rourke’s men, who are Austrian security, he is interrogated as a suspected ‘terrorist’ and strip-searched by having a couple of fingers shoved where they shouldn’t go). The enlightened imam who sanctioned their common-law marriage gets detained indefinitely. It turns out that Rourke doesn’t work for the CIA anymore but for a private intelligence group funded by the US oil industry and run by neo-conservatives and Christian fundamentalists. In the meantime, the American war machine grinds on towards another confrontation, this time with Iran. End of story.

Give the giant his due

At the artistic level what we have here is a contrast between two duos, Mundy and Sasha, on the one hand, and Rourke and Dimitri, on the other. Rourke, like Mundy, is half Irish, but unlike Mundy only pretends to be a liberal anti-Vietnam War protester. Rourke refuses to learn the lessons of that conflict. He put his Bostonian, East Coast liberal past behind him to find gainful employment with savage West Coast moneyed interests and ideologues. Sasha and Mundy stand for Old Europe; Dimitri for New Europe, despite his age (his accent has an American twang). He represents a Europe that has decided to go along to get along, and specifically the violent leftist, anarchists that Sasha opposed all along.[10]

A girlfriend of both Sasha and Mundy from their rebel days, Judith, becomes a lawyer who puts up with her two-timing husband for his money. More broadly the novel represents a reprisal of themes and issues in international politics and East-West affairs explored in Our Game (1995), namely, the “demonization of Islam as a substitute for the anti-Communist crusade.”[11] And Our Game, while a superior work, suffers from symbolic overload. Admittedly, I belittled Absolute Friends allegories because I didn’t know just how pertinent and well documented they are. I found out, the hard way, when I chanced upon “Postmodern Jihad”, a rather offensive little article by Waller R. Newell.[12]

Newell indulges in the same self-serving accusations and flights of fancy as Rourke. For instance, he charges that:

… European Marxists have taken heart from Islamic terrorists who seemed close to achieving the longed-for revolution against American hegemony… Derrida… reacted to the collapse of the Soviet Union by calling for a “new international.”… a grab bag of… students, feminists, environmentalists, gays, aboriginals, all uniting to combat American-led globalization. Islamic fundamentalists were obvious candidates for inclusion… Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri… identify Islamist terrorism as a spearhead of “the postmodern revolution” against “the new imperial order.”… “its refusal of modernity as a weapon of Euro-American hegemony.”

It’s hard to believe that Islamic fundamentalists would ‘obviously’ rub shoulders with homosexuals and atheists but, then again, not for someone like Newell who understands everything in neo-conservative terms. Why he even relies for gospel truths on Claire Sterling’s fanciful and vintage The Terror Network. He duly trots out the charge that it was the post-modernism of Michel Foucault and the existentialism of Sartre and (fascism of) Heidegger that engendered Islamic fundamentalism. Similar absurd charges can be found in Victor Davis Hanson, “The Wages of Appeasement: How Jimmy Carter and academic multiculturalists helped bring us Sept. 11”[13], and in Jamie Glazov’s “The Last Shah of Iran”.[14]

What we should take to heart is le Carré’s condemnation of a wishy-washy Europe unwilling to stand up to the US. The whole point of Rourke’s intelligence operation was to embarrass anti-Iraq War Germany. As for the novel’s notion of a Counter-University, I suspect this is a satirical spin on the American “war on terror” emphasis on post-modern education as the breeding ground for the next generation of terrorists. It’s no coincidence that Newell says that ‘liberal’ education in America has been ‘damaged’ by “postmodernism… a parlor game in which we ‘deconstruct’ great works of the past and impose our own meaning on them without regard for the authors’ intentions or the truth or falsity of our interpretations.” If people instead were educated to reject American imperialism in effective non-violent ways then there would be no need to resort to violence, le Carré seems to be saying. I couldn’t agree more.

So, as always le Carré has his literary finger on the pulse of post-Cold War intellectual developments. We really should take heed of his advice. The Counter-University is a must if we want to do something about the causes of terrorism and the neo-conservative ideology that stokes the flames of terrorism, whether leftist or Islamic. We all need some reeducating and le Carré is the one to point the way, even if he could have done it in a slightly better fashion than this near absolute tragedy of a novel!

[1] For the best psychoanalysis of bin Laden I have come across, see John le Carré, “A War We Cannot Win”, Nation, 273(16), 2001, p. 15-17.

[2] In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, (1974) the KGB mole explains that, even though ‘rightwing’ he turned to the Russians because of his hatred of America, a country that had led to the “death” of the Western world from “greed and constipation” (p. 354). He adds that his preferences were just as much ‘aesthetic’ as ‘moral,’ if not more so. The attitude of this British archetype is captured in the character of Jim Prideaux who describes America as a country “full of greedy fools fouling up their inheritance,” a country almost as bad as the Soviet Union (p. 18).

[3] See Paul Kennedy, “Has the US Lost its Way?”, Observer, 3 March 2002, Sunder Katwala, “Is America Too Powerful for its Own Good?”, Observer, 10 February 2002 and Fred Halliday, “Aftershocks that will Eventually Shake Us All”, Observer, 25 November 2001. Even the kind of stodgy, British conservative anti-Americanism of yonder is on the rise again, as attested to by the comments made about President Bush by a former cabinet minister from the British Conservative Party: “terrifying… ignorant… a prisoner of the religious right who believes God tells him what to do… like a child running around with a grenade with the pin pulled out.” See J.F.O. McAllister, “Mad at America”, Time Europe, 161(3), 20 January 2003, p. 16.

[4] There’s some of this in one of le Carré’s most popular novels, The Russian House, with the Russian heroine’s – a thinly disguised mother Russia – passion for English literature, even passing on Dante’s nuclear secrets to the West at a British Council literary exhibition.

[5] They are absolute in their friendship in classic British spy novelist, public schoolboy fashion. Very out of date in the 21st century, if you ask me, but perhaps that’s the whole point.

[6] In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy Jim Prideaux is a bull of a man with a paralyzed arm, making him look like a hunchback. He was shot (proverbially stabbed) in the back. In The Russia House Barley Blair is tall and strong but has a bad back. In Our Game, both the narrator, Timothy Cranmer, and his ‘common law’ wife (an expression used in Absolute Friends) have bad backs. He from old age, she from an injury at the hands of heavy-handed cops during a protest march. She’s scarred by Britain’s empire, exemplified by the old-age establishment of Cranmer’s generation. There’s some of this in The Constant Gardener with Justin Quayle, an old-age diplomat who still dresses in a white colonial suit, and his very young, very rebellious wife Tessa. Their child is stillborn, evidence of the inability of these two generations to ultimately reconcile their differences and bear fruit, so to speak. (The movie version doesn’t bring this out).

[7] The East German ‘villain’ in Call for the Dead is a built like an Olympic athlete but suffered from rickets as a child. As a Jew he signifies a Germany that is deformed because it turned its back on the Semitic component of its cultural grandeur. He has to put up with his blond, blued henchman whom we discover (in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold) is a former Hitler Youth and who gets British intelligence to frame an honest intelligence officer investigating him, also Jewish.

[8] There’s a hint of this in Our Game, the woman Cranmer is ‘living with’ is a musician that tries to play folk music of the Third World by concert standards.

[9] Le Carré may be poking fun of P.J. O’Rourke through this character, the famous Irish American who jumped ship from leftwing politics during the Vietnam era to Republicanism, author of such books as Give War a Chance (1992) and Peace Kills: America’s Fun New Imperialism (2004).\

[10] I suspect that Dimitri is a stand-in for George Soros. Soros did have a role in overthrowing Chevernadze’s rule in Georgia, whence Dimitri hails. He’s described as Georgian-Russian, and Russia is portrayed in imperial terms in Our Game, allowed by the West to pulverize Caucasian Muslims under the pretense of fighting Islamic fundamentalist terrorism.

[11] My contact with le Carré’s work began during my PhD studies, coming across this quote first in John Gerard Ruggie’s Winning the Peace: America and World Order in the New Era, (New York: Columbia UP, 1996), p. 163.

[13] The Wall Street Journal Opinion Page, 10 May 2004, http://www.opinionjournal.com/extra/?id=110004952,


Emad El-Din Aysha teaches at the American University in Cairo and is a film reviewer and political columnist for the Egyptian Gazette and Egyptian Mail. 


Logos 5.2 - spring/summer 2006
© Logosonline 2006