22 August 2006

Absolute Friends - A Review

Absolute Friends may not be the best book for le Carré beginners. I say that because I was one – this is the first of the English spymaster’s books I have read – and whatever I might have expected was, wholly, not what I got. That’s neither better or worse than it sounds. It happens that I took this book along on a vacation in Berlin – and much of the story takes place in that previously-divided city, during the days when students were rebelling against the WWII generation’s continued control of both Germanys, and when it was a center of Cold War intrigue. In fact, in many ways that is the story: rebellious student friends who grow up (sort of) and continue to rebel, in their way, against the dominant paradigms that seek to use and abuse them. (If one can still talk about “dominant paradigms” with a straight face.)

For a vacation in Berlin, it was terrific; even more than a decade after reunification, the city hasn’t lost all of the feel of that previous, Cold War era. For an American adamantly opposed to the Bush-Blair Iraq war nexus of lies, deceit, and population control through fear, Absolute Friends may stand as one of the best attacks (in novel form) on that collective set of crimes against humanity and decency. Le Carré pulls no punches in arguing that the Iraq war was neither a preemptive attack against an imminent threat or a noble humanitarian effort to overthrow a dictator, the two principal claims made by Mssrs. Bush and Blair. That the book was written several years ago does nothing to diminish the author’s arguments, given the continuing chaos in Iraq (otherwise known as American failure to win either the war or the peace there). The strongest, most powerful, and most disturbing part of the story comes towards the end, with the revelation of deceit and manipulation on a rather grand scale; this is, sadly, all too easy to imagine in a world of color-coded terrorist threats and unresolved “events” of one kind or another.

My biggest problem with Absolute Friends is that, strictly speaking, very little happens; it is perhaps the most cerebral, least action-oriented spy novel I have read. Whether this is consistent with le Carré’s general style I cannot say, and the lack of spy-world arcana need not be a turn off for the dedicated reader of this genre. It is a thriller, there’s no question about that, with a political punch. It just might not be the most thrilling thriller out there.


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