THE IDEA of John Le Carre playing around with the arguments and headlines of the war on terrorism promises immense fun. If any sane editor were given God-like powers to sic a writer on the spy games of Iraq, al Qaeda, and the Bush-Blair clandestine warriors, Le Carre would be the man, no contest. No one else could look at such a noisy mess and find a quiet tale in it, an idiosyncratic, illuminating angle that doesn't simply add to the clutter. Something complicated, secret, small, and manageable to curl up with amidst the clamoring of geopolitics, inquisitions, and campaigns.
The risk--at least for Le Carre's fans--is that the master will become part of the noise. If Le Carre proffers his take on the war, if he has a "position," how can it not descend into pamphleteering? Le Carre's best work has never been about headlines, but about stories that never make the news.
Both promise and peril are realized in "Absolute Friends." In its bleakest moments, it is a wooden diatribe. But by the end, those parts are fairly well erased and the story and characters win out. The reader is left--I was left--in the same delicious state Le Carre evoked with his classics, "The Spy Who Came In From the Cold," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy," and "Smiley's People": confused, pessimistic, curious, and thoroughly mistrustful of anything you think you might know about the world of governments, soldiers, and news. That is not an unhealthy posture right now.
The "absolute friends" (remember, in Le Carre, nothing is absolute) of the novel's title are Ted Mundy, a colony-born British seeker, and Sasha, a radical, poison near-dwarf he meets in Berlin in the 1960s. The book is the life story of Ted Mundy, a tale that neatly captures a post-Cold War version of many familiar Le Carre themes. (Mundy: mundo, monde, world--get it?)
Mundy is a bit of a Chauncey Gardner. He bumbles through life and things happen to him. When we first meet him, he's a tour guide at a castle in Bavaria who lives with a toothless, yet gorgeous, Turkish woman and her son. To the world he's "A failure at something--a professional English bloody fool in a bowler and a Union Jack, all things at all men and nothing to himself, fifty in the shade, nice enough chap, wouldn't necessarily trust him with my daughter."
Le Carre then spins us through Mundy's back story, in an uncharacteristic rush, though it takes hundreds of pages: incarnations as a happy boy in colonial Pakistan, son of a drunken, disgraced soldier back in England, Oxford scholar in first swoon, ex-pat radical in '60s Berlin, failed reporter, petty arts bureaucrat, hapless husband and, eventually, reluctant Cold War spy, teamed up with his old friend Sasha.
Long after the Cold War and soon after the Iraq war, Sasha reenters Mundy's absurd tour-guide life. They still share, it seems, perhaps, maybe, their old idealism--or at least a hatred of America's imperialistic, unnecessary war. Familiar threads of European radicalism and Iron Curtain spy games become entangled with other elements--Islamist terrorism and a new generation of Western spies. Sasha brings Mundy a proposition that appeals to Mundy's greed and his own political faith. But is it a trick? Can Mundy know? Can he say no?
TOGETHER, Sasha and Mundy get caught in a game they can't see, in the spy wars of terrorism, setting up the main action of the novel. They stumble into an über-ending that I can't tell you about in good conscience, except that it's something of a metaphor for the war in Iraq.
Both Mundy and Sasha grow up believing lies about their own biographies. They don't know the truth about their own stories, much less the world they see with such political certainty. Which is Le Carre's central concern: lies. The great climax of the book, the one I can't tell you about, is a huge lie. The reader knows it, but doesn't really know what to believe about it either.
Mundy's world, like Smiley's people, has a problem with epistemology. How do we know what we think we know? How do we know what we don't know? Le Carre's characters live in world where half the people obscure the truth and create deceptions for a living. The rest believe in lies or myths, often with good hearts.
Such a world is full of ambiguities and confusion. There are bad guys and heroes, sadists and saviors, but they don't line up neatly on one side or the other. It is the world of George Smiley and Le Carre's Cold War masterpieces. That world is back in "Absolute Friends," making it Le Carre's most vigorous and haunting book since the tragedy of Smiley's final retirement.
Don't be tempted to think that Le Carre's key to success here is replacing evil Communism with evil terrorism. Le Carre's war on terror isn't that different from his Cold War; it's all very tricky. It's not a good enemy that brings Le Carre to life. It's the complexity and the characters on "our" side of the fight--our spies, our traitors, our dupes, our true believers, our bureaucrats, our martyrs.
In some of Le Carre's recent books, notably "The Constant Gardner," the good guys are too good and the bad guys too bad. In other post-Smiley novels, "Our Game" and "The Secret Pilgrim," small, personal stories miss the big palette of political melodrama.
THAT SAID, "Absolute Friends" is one of Le Carre's least addictive books. It lacks his best scenes, the drawn-out, tense, detailed planning of spy operations from "The Russia House" or "The Little Drummer Girl." He skimps on the tradecraft and the slow simmering plots.
And, yes, there are the diatribes. Last year, before the war, Citizen Le Carre wrote in The Times of London that, "America has entered one of its periods of historical madness." He trots out that perspective several times in the novel. But the character that spews the purest rant and ideology, Dmitri, happens to be the most phony and least credible in the book, a truly bad guy, as if Le Carre wants to undermine the arguments.
The war's opponents have appropriated "Absolute Friends" while its advocates have condemned it. Some will insist on turning this novel into polemic. To do so is to turn a treat into a tract and miss out on a terrific read.