A roar of disjointed outrage
Thriller: Le Carré's new novel is more than just another consummate literary exercise, writes Arminta Wallace.
It has always been John le Carré's chosen area of operation - all those novels about spies and double spies and even triple spies, a dizzying hall of mirrors peopled by half-glimpsed incarnations of disloyalty and denial. But the opening pages of his 19th book are more deceptive than most.
It all seems so familiar. The virtuoso introduction. The affable, self-deprecating tone; the bumbling Britisher who shambles, reluctantly, into the spotlight. "A bit of a comedian, obviously. A failure at something - a professional English bloody fool in a bowler and a Union Jack, all things to all men and nothing to himself, fifty in the shade, nice enough chap, wouldn't necessarily trust him with my daughter.
"And those vertical wrinkles above the eyebrows like fine slashes of a scalpel, could be anger, could be nightmares: Ted Mundy, tour guide."
Mundy's Britishness, however, is - yes - deceptive. He lives, not in leafy middle England, but in a concrete block in an ethnic ghetto in a German suburb; not with his wife, a successful Labour politician from whom he has long since separated, but with a Turkish ex-prostitute and her 11-year-old son.
Because Zara works nights in a kebab shop it is Mundy who gets Mustafa up every day, supervises his morning prayers and brings him to school on the bus. As the story progresses, we will meet at least one other Mundy - "in spying", the author reminds us, "there is always a second version" - and we will also meet his friend Sasha, the "absolute friend" of the title.
The pair run the gamut of young idealistic activism: student protests in Berlin, followed by a spell of double-agent action during the Cold War. It's that deception business again. For much of the book the unwary reader might almost be lulled into thinking that in his old age le Carré has wandered back into the territory of George Smiley.
Remember Smiley? He of the owlish spectacles and hunched shoulders, battler for good against evil, a seminal character of 20th-century fiction and blessed, according to his creator, with "the cunning of Satan and the conscience of a virgin". Smiley and his cohorts regularly engaged with such themes as the nature of corruption, the tension between belief and pragmatism, the relationship between fathers and sons - and the revisiting of these themes in Absolute Friends enhances the illusion of familiarity. So, of course, does le Carré's customary elegance of expression: Sasha is conjured up by the mention of his "clotted voice on the phone"; Mundy is made up of "all the odd bits of his life that are left over after he has given the rest away".
But then comes the explosion. After the tone and subject matter of le Carré's last two novels, it should hardly have come as a surprise. Single & Single was a furious rebuttal of outside interference in the affairs of an obscure corner of the former Soviet republic of Georgia. The Constant Gardener, a seething denunciation of international drugs companies and their activities in Africa, earned itself the suitably ambiguous accolade of being boycotted in Kenya. With the demise of the Cold War, le Carré was clearly building up a head of steam in the face of a new world order he didn't much like. Nobody, however, could have predicted the incandescent rage which fuels Absolute Friends.
And what has John le Carré got to be angry about? Well, as Mundy puts it, "It's the discovery, in his sixth decade, that half a century after the death of Empire, the dismally ill-managed country he'd done a little of this and that for is being marched off to quell the natives on the strength of a bunch of lies, in order to please a renegade hyperpower that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment."
Another character is less oblique: "That war on Iraq was illegitimate . . . It was a criminal and immoral conspiracy. No provocation, no link with Al Quaeda, no weapons of Armageddon. Tales of complicity between Saddam and Osama were self-serving bullshit. 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 Judaeo-Christian geopolitical fantasists who hijacked the media and exploited America's post-Nine Eleven psychopathy."
If you think that's strong stuff, wait till you read the ending. Can't give it away, old chap - that wouldn't, as Mundy might observe with one of his barks of embarrassed laughter, be cricket. Let's just say that Absolute Friends won't be top of Tony Blair's reading list. If it's top of yours, be warned. It's a curiously disjointed, almost episodic book. Mundy is a gem, but Sasha is more of a rough sketch, difficult to warm to, lacking the charisma of, say, Jerry Westerby from The Honorable Schoolboy or Larry Pettifer from Our Game.
Structurally, the novel doesn't glide effortlessly along like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Little Drummer Girl or The Tailor of Panama. But that's precisely the point. Le Carré wants us to see the joins, wants the spin to sicken us. Absolute Friends is more than just another consummate exercise from a literary master. As a comment on our brave new world, it is a mesmerising roar of outrage.
Arminta Wallace is an Irish Times journalist.
Absolute Friends. By John le Carré, Hodder & Stoughton, 383pp. £18.99