Socialist Worker

John Le Carre: The spy writer who came in from the cold

by Lindsey German
Issue No. 1885

Who would have thought that the best known writer of spy novels in Britain in the late 20th century would become one of the finest literary critics of neo-liberalism, war and empire in the 21st?

Yet that is exactly what John Le Carre has done. Absolute Friends is not so much a thriller, more a chronicle of the decline of Britain and its empire seen through the eyes of the generation born in the aftermath of the Second World War.

Ted Mundy, his hero, is the son of a British army major. He was born on the day that Pakistan became independent, as the British Empire ended its hundreds of years of rule in India, leaving partition and massacre in its wake.

A misfit in Pakistan and then a misfit at his English public school, his lonely childhood is nurtured by tales of his beautiful aristocratic mother who died in childbirth and of his father's heroic adventures.

These tales are as flawed as the proud tales of empire itself. The major was forced to marry Ted's mother, the pregnant Irish servant of a rich Anglo-Indian family, and later left the army in disgrace.

Berlin in the late 1960s, where Oxford student Ted goes to improve his German, provides the strongest contrast. It is here he begins his lifelong friendship with Sasha, a child of what the radical students call the Auschwitz generation.

Sasha and Ted's friendship endures past the 1960s student movement, through Ted's dropout years travelling the world, into his cultural job with the British Council which evolves seamlessly into spying in East Germany.

Ted settles into a double life: marriage and fatherhood in Hampstead, interspersed with cultural and spying trips to Eastern Europe.

But life changes. The Berlin Wall comes down, and with it the end of the Cold War. Ted's marriage to Kate has already crumbled as she transforms from liberal teacher into reborn Blairite MP in a safe Labour seat.

So it is that by 2003 Ted is a tourist guide in one of mad King Ludwig's Bavarian castles. A tacky Union Jack is velcroed onto his jacket pocket, but his real loyalties lie elsewhere.

The fairytale setting doesn't prevent Ted's frequent diatribes against Tony Blair, the Iraq war and the pernicious influence of America.

Ted has learnt that loyalty, love and commitment are not to an idea of flag or empire, but to human beings. His love for Zara, his Turkish lover, her son Mustafa and for his old friend and comrade Sasha lead him to his final disastrous enterprise.

Le Carre's anger at what is happening to the world has been obvious from his recent writing. His last novel, The Constant Gardener, had as its major villain the Western pharmaceutical companies. Absolute Friends is not such a good novel in some ways, but contains the same anger.

The end of the Cold War has not meant the 'end of history'. Instead it has lead to greater inequalities, greater militarism and a US capitalism which is raging rampant throughout the world.

We are in no doubt who who the bad guys are. George Bush, the CIA and American capital are all up there, and with them Tony Blair.

As Sasha says, 'The easiest and cheapest trick for any leader is to take his country to war on false pretences. Anyone who does that should be hounded out of office for all time.'

With the Hutton inquiry set to report there could hardly be a more timely message.

  • Absolute Friends (£18.99) is available from Bookmarks – phone 020 7637 1848.

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    Sat 24 Jan 2004, 00:00 GMT
    Issue No. 1885
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