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by John le Carre
Back Bay Books, November 2004
464 pages
ISBN: 0316159395

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

ABSOLUTE FRIENDS is an incendiary novel. Le Carre marshals his considerable talent to deliver a blistering attack on the war in Iraq and the ideology that produced it. Without sentimentality he gives us a deeply moving, deeply personal story fueled by the forces of history.

This is the story of Ted Mundy, a Brit, who at the beginning of the book works as a tour guide at one of King Ludwig's castles in Bavaria. When we meet him, he is living with his Turkish lover, Zara, and her son Mustafa in a shabby apartment in Munich, and he is happier than he has ever been. But a retired spy's past always casts a shadow, and one day his old friend Sasha appears among the throngs of tourists Mundy guides through the castle.

Mundy, we soon learn, was born in Pakistan on the cusp of the transfer of power from Britain to the partitioned India. His father was a major in the colonial army, a drunk, who stayed in the Punjab and pledged his services to the new government of Pakistan. His mother died in childbirth. Mundy attends public school in England and finds himself drawn to a teacher who seems to be as much an outcast as he is. The man teaches him German, which inspires Mundy to study abroad in Berlin.

There he meets Sasha and a whole cast of revolutionary students who share a communal squat and idealistically debate politics and the virtues of direct action as only students of the 1960s could. The bond he forms with Sasha is deep. Indeed, there is something homoerotic about the friendship these men share. Although they never become lovers, the language le Carre uses to describe their relationship is the language of seduction and obsession.

These two, Sasha and Mundy, are beautifully drawn characters, at the same time compelling and complex, and the story is told through the eyes of the 50-something Mundy as he looks back upon his life as a bit political player in a tragic and tumultuous century.

But the book is more than a nostalgic look back at a single life; it is a counter university in and of itself. Names of authors whose work challenges what Sasha would call the "dominant corporate-political paradigm" tumble out of characters' mouths as though le Carre were pleading with his readers to jot them down and investigate further, to direct their attention to people who hold points of view that are rarely given air time.

The incredible force of the book comes from le Carre's ability to convey passionately the sweep of historical forces that span decades while in the exact same sentences portraying the frailty of the human heart in the face of unspeakable sadness.

No matter what your political opinions about the war in Iraq or the neo-con agenda are, this book is a literary masterpiece that you should not miss. The passion and eloquence leap from the pages of this well-told novel. This is le Carre's best work yet, and that's saying something.

Reviewed by Carroll Johnson, January 2005

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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