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Windbags of War

Le Carre gets polemical


For the better part of the Cold War and beyond, John le Carre created thrilling, thoughtful novels emphasizing the treachery and relentless moral ambiguity inherent in the spy trade. Think George Smiley and countless other creations, dispirited men in search of absolute answers while sentenced to lives of infinite vague validations.

In Absolute Friends, the author trades his role as nuanced novelist for pedantic polemicist. Sheer craftsmanship and experience keep the book from devolving into disaster. Even such considerable skill struggles, though, in the face of a shrill, anti-imperialist tone embodied by Sasha, one of the book's main characters.

He's a German anarchist who speaks in the worst sort of rebellious, commune-paranoid lingo. An argument with the novel's chief protagonist, a pragmatic English drifter named Ted Mundy (Mundy and Sasha represent the title's absolute friendship), offers a typical, tiring example:

"Your little prime minister is not the American president's poodle, he is his blind dog, I hear," he tells Mundy in the wake of America's Iraq invasion. "Supported by Britain's servile corporate media, he has given spurious respectability to American imperialism."

To witness le Carre italicizing his characters' dogmatic diatribes represents a jaw-dropping clumsiness from a writer known for sinewy prose and clear-eyed aversion to black-and-white answers. And it plagues Absolute Friends throughout this oft-creaky narrative.

In many cases, the book veers into clumsy college essay: Set up point of view, deliver point of view. Wash. Rinse. Repeat. Mundy and Sasha meet in the 1960s in Berlin, where Sasha holds court as the lord of a commune. It's a place where the mention of finding a job is met with derision.

Eventually, Mundy and Sasha meet up again. Their commune days ended with unceremonious finality after a vandalism-tinged protest gets Mundy arrested. Mundy and Sasha, after years apart, both wind up working as spies, infiltrating Eastern Europe and ferreting out communist doings for the governments of the West.

The collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ends their careers. Sasha embarks on a vagabond journey through the Middle East, railing against whatever might be handy. Mundy, meanwhile, winds up as a hapless tour guide at a German castle, though he has fallen in love with a Turkish woman and her young son.

The novel, set at the time of the American war in Iraq, unwinds in lengthy flashbacks. The most satisfying ones involve the shadowy double and triple lives led by Sasha, Mundy and other spies during the Cold War. Most of these men -- and they are almost invariably men -- suffer moral quandaries beyond spying. Those longings and deficiencies, after all, propelled them to become spies in the first place.

In recent interviews, le Carre has described the novel as one he had to write. Worries that a strident anti-American, or anti-Bush Administration, tone might offend his considerable audience in the US could not justify avoiding essential truths for what he terms the world's "renegade hyperpower."

Certainly literature and art have been, and will continue to be, a powerful force for political debate and enlightening allegory. This novel is offensive not for its politics, but for its lack of finesse and consideration. Its tinny dialogue and hysterics remind one of a lengthy Berkeley bull session. Indictments against Big Oil and Big Media are valid enough, but, unlike so many of his earlier works, le Carre doesn't sift the machinations and personalities with his usual meticulous attention.

Instead, Absolute Friends offers comic-book characters: Sasha and Ted, while different in personality and approach, represent the doomed idealists of the 21st Century. Almost everyone else is too self-absorbed or too duplicitous to be considered anything but a detriment.

In the end, the problem with Absolute Friends is that it's a story designed as a vehicle for spouting geopolitical theories rather than one built for plot, narrative and character development. Beyond le Carre's sturdy portrait of Cold War spying, offered here intermittently, the novel offers one interesting character (Mundy) and a cast of proselytizers. Such rampant absolutism leaves one, in the end, seeking literary absolution.

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