Absolute Friends, by John le Carre

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John le Carre has always had great titles. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. The Little Drummer Girl. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy.

The title of his new book sounds like a liquor ad. Maybe in a hundred years Aboslute Friends won’t sound awkward, but in today’s day, it’s hard not to think of clever product placement by the vodka company’s public relations firm. Which is a credit, I guess, to the power of branding in 21st Century America, and to the strength of Absolut’s advertising campaign.

I don’t remember too much about The Russia House, except that we went into the movie thinking it was going to be a high-suspense cold-war tale of international espionage, and that when we came out, whoever I saw it with thought it was boring, and I basically agreed, but, at the same time, commented that it was one of the greatest love stories I had ever seen.

Absolute Friends is a love story too, of sorts. A platonic love story, (at least presumably), between two absolute friends.

Follett’s novels, like le Carre’s, often have compelling tales of sacrifice. The sacrifice of love for country. The sacrifice of country for love. But le Carre’s novels probe a little more deeply into the sacrifice of self.

The great existential question: Who am I?

The tailor or the handler? The soldier or the clown? The husband and father or the spy? British or Russian? Capitalist or Communist? East or West? Both? Neither? Does it matter? Whatever helps the cause? Whatever keeps me alive? For the good of all? The lesser of two evils? The greater of two goods? It doesn’t matter. The only thing that’s real are the connections between real people. That’s where, ultimately, if anywhere, my loyalty lies. Right? Or not.

I enjoy Daniel Silva’s novels, for example. I love the spy assassin character Gabriel Allon. But I’m not sure that he’s “existential” in any meaningful way. Allon, and the reader, know exactly who he is.

The reason, I think, why critics elevate le Carre to the status of “transcending the genre and giving us something close to important literature” (Patrick Smith, Nation) is because le Carre combines the plot-driven action of a thriller with the internalized meditations of a protagonist struggling to define himself, and his place in the world.

To be conveyed.
To take no decisions.
To sit back and be a spectator to your own life.
That’s spying too, apparently….

But unfortunately, that is only Mundy One. In spying, there is always a second version….

Can schizophrenia be induced?
Certainly it can, provided the patient is complicit.

While similar to A Perfect Spy, Absolute Friends is not quite so contemplative. Mundy is more of a “hero”, at least to my way of thinking; and more accessible. There is more plot, and it’s better.

Personally, I would like to see the author choose one narrative strain and stick with it. Tell the story from beginning to end.

Frequently, in reading Absolute Friends, I recalled the suggestion of Robert McKee in his Story Seminar that character is choice. Nothing more, nothing less. The choices that a protagonist makes under pressure reveal his or her true character.

Like Rick in Casablanca, Mundy is ultimately defined, not in his own musings, but by the choices he makes. Not running off to Canada. Reuniting with Sasha. And committing to Sasha a second time. So, perhaps, the omniscience is unnecessary.

But it is likely the precise blend of first person and third person, internal and external, memoir and thriller, action and backstory, which allows le Carre to enjoy, at once, both commercial and literary success.

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