Absolute Friends

John Fox

Absolute Friends by John le Carre

Hodder and Stoughton $250

The end of the cold war presaged the end of the genre that John le Carre mastered through his George Smiley series. In the years since, le Carre has turned to the break-up of the Soviet Union (Our Game), law and order in Russia (Single & Single), supposed espionage in Central America (The Tailor Of Panama) and multinational drug companies in Africa (The Constant Gardener).

His latest effort deals with events in the aftermath of the war in Iraq. But old habits - and plot devices - die hard. More than half of Absolute Friends involves flashbacks to cold war West Berlin and communist Eastern Europe.

The central characters are 'absolute friends' Ted Mundy and Sasha. A child of the British Raj, Ted is a quaintly quintessential Englishman who first meets Sasha, then a radical student anarchist leader, when they are living in a commune in 1969 Berlin, at the height of student unrest in Europe. After being arrested in a riot and severely beaten by the West Berlin police, Ted is deported to England, where he has a series of dead-end jobs before landing a US writing scholarship that leads to a job with a Shakespearean company on tour for the British Council.

The group visits East Germany, where Ted once again meets Sasha, who is now a junior bureaucrat for the Stasi, the East German secret police. Sasha has stolen secrets from the Stasi for years, and proposes that Ted take these to a British embassy contact in West Berlin. When Ted does so he is recruited into British intelligence. Sasha and Ted become highly successful agents during the next 10 years, until Ted's marriage and his language school in Heidelberg fall apart. He tries to eke out a living as a tour guide to English-speaking visitors at Mad King Ludwig's Linderhof castle in Bavaria to support his Turkish common-law wife and her young son in Munich.

Sasha unexpectedly reappears at the Linderhof with another proposition, which Ted thinks might be too good to be true.

Absolute Friends marks the return of le Carre to his best, with a well written and paced plot, perhaps born of the author's long familiarity with cold war espionage. The characterisation, particularly that of the protagonists, is superb. While the author's apparent disapproval of the policies of US President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair occasionally surfaces, it never interferes with the reading. Few people, after all, have a better handle on the machinations of war than le Carre.