Ted Mundy is one of the least likely candidates in recent fiction to be a spy. Now past his political prime, Mundy has a job he enjoys, a cozy apartment and a Muslim girlfriend. His spying days are long past, and his natural exuberance makes him a perfect tour guide. Out of the corner of his eye, Mundy spots a face from his socialist/anarchist past, an “old friend” who guided him through their dissident days in Germany, where they joined with a group of activists determined to hold the apathetic German population responsible for their passive acceptance of Hitler’s regime. This old friend has no place in Mundy’s present.
The expatriate son of a former British army officer stationed in India, Mundy drifts through his education and varied employment, following whatever politics he agrees with. He is one of the spy artifacts of the Cold War, part of a vast network organized to bring down Communism. Once the Cold War sputters to an end, Mundy is at loose ends, moving from job to job, none of them quite his métier. However, with his natural sarcasm, Mundy has enjoyed female conquests across the globe, a fringe benefit of political activism, so he can’t be entirely charmless - although he certainly reads that way. In his current occupation as a tour guide, Mundy appears an unwitting buffoon. But then, what better ruse than the homely appeal of a foolish, prattling man?
I find poor Mundy a fragmented man, split into pieces to accommodate his various lives: husband and father, part of the British work force and secret double agent. Unsurprisingly his home life is affected. Eventually, Mundy’s marriage dissolves, and the disappearance of the great battle against Communism all but annihilates the spy community. With the destruction of the Berlin Wall, the fire is extinguished.
Sasha, the socialist friend of Mundy’s earlier days in Germany, is the engineer of his introduction into the spy/counterspy culture. At that time Mundy is married and expecting a child and falls into the required duplicitous role effortlessly. He takes direction well, part of the Cold War culture that sustains an incredible network of representative spies. In this most recent appearance, Sasha eyes once more light up with fanatic glee as he rages about the war in Iraq. One last great battle for the two old friends, one more jolt of action against injustice is proposed, a battle against “the enslavement of the global proletariat by corporate military alliances.”
In Absolute Friends, John le Carre Lays out the broad perspective of spymanship, the subtle psychological twists and turns, the fine-tuning, always with an eye toward keeping the spy-in-training under control. Which side is irrelevant. The process is the same; each spy undergoes a long period of reprocessing and mental restructuring, giving the extraordinary the appearance of the ordinary.
The world of Absolute Friends is surreal, a tale within a tale easily dismissed as Cold War paranoia. It would be easy to relegate these characters and situations to the past, except that much is known about the inbred spy subculture, the dark underside that began as a war against an unseen enemy and became, over time, a deadly serious game. The players change and the endgame is dubious, but once put in motion, there is no way out. Le Carre is conversant with this shadow-world as it keeps reinventing itself to accommodate changing world conditions. Absolute Friends is as changeable as this culture, with the caveat that the game changes with the times, ever more dangerous, impossible to know which side is which.