The Spy Who Came Out Against the War

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Review of "Absolute Friends", John Le Carré, Hodder £18.99

A new Le Carré novel is always worth paying attention to. Considered by many to be the unrivalled master of the spy thriller, Le Carré is, by his own account, a writer of 'political novels'. Over the years he has questioned why anyone should be loyal to a vain, snobbery-ridden, declining imperial power such as Britain. Is there not something admirable in the idealism of Kim Philby and the other Cambridge spies who betrayed their country because they thought by doing so they could help bring about a better world? He has also put the other side, asking whether the lie that Russia is socialist isn't so monstrous that, however dishonest and hypocritical the West may be, it has, regrettably, to be supported as the lesser evil. And this was the view he himself took until the collapse of the Soviet Union.

But now, the Cold War ended, things have moved on. The two main characters of the novel, the Englishman Ted Mundy and the German Sasha, are both in their own ways creations of the Cold War world. Meeting in the late 1960s in a left wing commune in Berlin at the height of the movement against the Vietnam War, Mundy saves his friend from being killed by the West Berlin police on a demonstration. They become 'absolute friends', able to confide in each other across the Cold War divide, as they also both become double agents working for the British government. This means, post 11 September, they are involved in the so called 'war on terrorism' - 'war' that will always be manipulated by governments, helped by the corporate media happily letting themselves be used for disinformation purposes.

The question is, what underlies this 'war'? Novels, even spy thrillers, don't have to take up questions like this. But Le Carré is blunt. And his bluntness is such that it upsets those who want him to sit on the fence. The Guardian's reviewer was outraged that the author's thoughts could be so blurred with the hero's when Mundy points out:

'It's the discovery, in his sixth decade, that half a century after the death of Empire, the dismally ill-managed country he'd done a little of this and that for is being marched off to quell the natives on the strength of a bunch of lies, in order to please a renegade hyperpower that thinks it can treat the rest of the world as its allotment.'

Elsewhere it gets even better, when one of the bad guys puts it like this:

'Every war is worse than the last one, Mr Mundy. But this war is the worst I ever saw if we're talking about lies, which I am. Lies happen to be something of a speciality of mine. Maybe because I told so many in my time, they piss me off. Makes no difference the Cold War's over. Makes no difference we're globalised, multinational or what the hell. Soon as the tom-toms sound and the politicians roll out their lies, it's bows and arrows and the flag and round the clock television for all loyal citizens. It's three cheers for the big bangs and who gives a fuck about casualties as long as they're the other guy's?... And don't give me that horseshit about Old Europe... We're looking at the oldest America in the book. Puritan zealots butchering savages in the name of the Lord - how do you get older than that? It was genocide then, it's genocide today, but whoever owns the truth owns the game.'

Do yourself a favour. Read one of the best living writers in the English language and at the same time give yourself a boost for the struggles we face in 2004.