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Today, Mundy is a down-at-the-heels tour guide in southern Germany, dodging creditors, supporting a new family, and keeping an eye out for trouble while in spare moments vigorously questioning the actions of the country he once bravely served. And trouble finds him, as it has before, in the shape of an old German student friend, radical, and onetime fellow spy, the crippled Sasha, seeker after absolutes, dreamer, and chaos addict. After years of trawling the Middle East and Asia as an itinerant university lecturer, Sasha has yet again discovered the true, the only, answer to life — this time in the form of a mysterious billionaire philanthropist named Dimitri. Thanks to Dimitri, both Mundy and Sasha will find a path out of poverty, and with it their chance to change a world that both believe is going to the devil. Or will they? Who is Dimitri? Why does Dimitri's gold pour in from mysterious Middle Eastern bank accounts? And why does his apparently noble venture reek less of starry idealism than of treachery and fear? Some gifts are too expensive to accept. Could this be one of them? With a cooler head than Sasha's, Mundy is inclined to think it could.
In Absolute Friends, John le Carre delivers the masterpiece he has been building to since the fall of communism: an epic tale of loyalty and betrayal that spans the lives of two friends from the riot-torn West Berlin of the 1960s to the grimy looking-glass of Cold War Europe to the present day of terrorism and new alliances. This is the novel le Carre fans have been waiting for, a brilliant, ferocious, heartbreaking work for the ages.
“A searing, startling novel that sweeps through much of the twentieth century and up to the present conflict with Iraq.” —Lev Grossman, Time
Other Books by John le Carré
The Constant Gardener
Single and Single
The Tailor of Panama
The Night Manager
The Secret Pilgrim
The Russia House
A Perfect Spy
The Little Drummer Girl
The Honorable Schoolboy
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy
The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
A Small Town in Germany
The Looking Glass War
The Spy Who Came In from the Cold
A Murder of Quality
Call for the Dead
ON THE DAY his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig's castles in Bavaria. It wasn't a classic bowler, more your Laurel and Hardy than Savile Row. It wasn't an English hat, despite the Union Jack blazoned in Oriental silk on the handkerchief pocket of his elderly tweed jacket. The maker's grease-stained label on the inside of the crown proclaimed it to be the work of Messrs. Steinmatzky & Sons, of Vienna.
And since it wasn't his own hat—as he hastened to explain to any luckless stranger, preferably female, who fell victim to his boundless accessibility—neither was it a piece of self-castigation. "It's a hat of office, madam," he would insist, garrulously begging her pardon in a set piece he had off perfectly. "A gem of history, briefly entrusted to me by generations of previous incumbents of my post—wandering scholars, poets, dreamers, men of the cloth—and every man jack of us a loyal servant of the late King Ludwig—hah!" The hah! perhaps being some kind of involuntary throwback to his military childhood. "Well, what's the alternative, I mean to say? You can hardly ask a thoroughbred Englishman to tote an umbrella like the Japanese guides, can you? Not here in Bavaria, my goodness, no. Not fifty miles from where our own dear Neville Chamberlain made his pact with the devil. Well, can you, madam?"
And if his audience, as is often the case, turns out to be too pretty to have heard of Neville Chamberlain or know which devil is referred to, then in a rush of generosity the thoroughbred Englishman will supply his beginners' version of the shameful Munich Agreement of 1938, in which he does not shy from remarking how even our beloved British monarchy, not to mention our aristocracy and the Tory Party here on earth, favored practically any accommodation with Hitler rather than a war.
"British establishment absolutely terrified of Bolshevism, you see," he blurts, in the elaborate telegramese that, like hah!, overcomes him when he is in full cry. "Powers-that-be in America no different. All any of 'em ever wanted was to turn Hitler loose on the Red Peril." And how in German eyes, therefore, Neville Chamberlain's rolled-up umbrella remains to this very day, madam, the shameful emblem of British appeasement of Our Dear Führer, his invariable name for Adolf Hitler. "I mean frankly, in this country, as an Englishman, I'd rather stand in the rain without one. Still, that's not what you came here for, is it? You came to see Mad Ludwig's favorite castle, not listen to an old bore ranting on about Neville Chamberlain. What? What? Been a pleasure, madam"—doffing the clown's bowler in self-parody and revealing an anarchic forelock of salt-and-pepper hair that bounces out of its trap like a greyhound the moment it's released—"Ted Mundy, jester to the Court of Ludwig, at your service."
And who do they think they've met, these punters—or Billies, as the British tour operators prefer to call them—if they think at all? Who is this Ted Mundy to them as a fleeting memory? A bit of a comedian, obviously. A failure at something—a professional English bloody fool in a bowler and a Union Jack, all things to all men and nothing to himself, fifty in the shade, nice enough chap, wouldn't necessarily trust him with my daughter. And those vertical wrinkles above the eyebrows like fine slashes of a scalpel, could be anger, could be nightmares: Ted Mundy, tour guide.
It's three minutes short of five o'clock in the evening, late May, and the last tour of the day is about to begin. The air is turning chilly, a red spring sun is sinking in the young beech trees. Ted Mundy perches like a giant grasshopper on the balcony, knees up, bowler tipped against the dying rays. He is poring over a rumpled copy of the Süddeutsche Zeitung that he keeps rolled up like a dog-chew in an inner pocket of his jacket for these moments of respite between tours. The Iraqi war officially ended little more than a month ago. Mundy, its unabashed opponent, scrutinizes the lesser headlines: Prime Minister Tony Blair will travel to Kuwait to express his thanks to the Kuwaiti people for their cooperation in the successful conflict.
"Humph," says Mundy aloud, brows furrowed.
During his tour, Mr. Blair will make a brief stopover in Iraq. The emphasis will be on reconstruction rather than triumphalism.
"I should bloody well hope so," Mundy growls, his glower intensifying.
Mr. Blair has no doubt whatever that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will shortly be found. U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, on the other hand, speculates that the Iraqis may have destroyed them before the war began.
"Why don't you make up your stupid minds then?" Mundy harrumphs.
His day thus far has followed its usual complex and unlikely course. Prompt at six he rises from the bed he shares with his young Turkish partner, Zara. Tiptoeing across the corridor he wakes her eleven-year-old son, Mustafa, in time for him to wash and clean his teeth, say his morning prayers, eat the breakfast of bread, olives, tea and chocolate spread that Mundy has meantime prepared for him. All this is done in an atmosphere of great stealth. Zara works late shift in a kebab café close to Munich's main railway station, and must not on any account be woken. Since starting her night job she has been arriving home around three in the morning, in the care of a friendly Kurdish taxi driver who lives in the same block. Muslim ritual should then permit her to say a quick prayer before sunrise and enjoy eight hours of good sleep, which is what she needs. But Mustafa's day begins at seven, and he too must pray. It took all Mundy's powers of persuasion, and Mustafa's also, to convince Zara that Mundy could preside over her son's devotions, and she could get her hours in. Mustafa is a quiet, catlike child, with a cap of black hair, scared brown eyes and a raucous boing-boing voice.
From the apartment block—a shabby box of weeping concrete and external wiring—man and boy pick their way across wasteland to a bus shelter covered in graffiti, much of it abusive. The block is what these days is called an ethnic village: Kurds, Yemenis and Turks live packed together in it. Other children are already assembled here, some with mothers or fathers. It would be reasonable for Mundy to consign Mustafa to their care, but he prefers to ride with him to the school and shake his hand at the gates, sometimes formally kissing him on both cheeks. In the twilight time before Mundy appeared in his life, Mustafa suffered humiliation and fear. He needs rebuilding.
Returning from school to the apartment takes twenty minutes of Mundy's huge strides, and he arrives with one half of him hoping Zara is still asleep and the other half that she is just awake, in which case she will make at first drowsy, then increasingly passionate love with him before he leaps into his elderly Volkswagen Beetle and joins the southbound traffic for the seventy-minute drive to the Linderhof and work.
The journey is irksome but necessary. A year ago, all three members of the family were separately in despair. Today they are a fighting force bent upon improving their collective lives. The story of how this miracle came about is one that Mundy recounts to himself whenever the traffic threatens to drive him mad:
He is on his uppers.
He is practically on the run.
Egon, his business partner and coprincipal of their struggling Academy of Professional English, has fled with the last of the assets. Mundy himself has been obliged to creep out of Heidelberg at dead of night with whatever he can cram into the Volkswagen, plus 704 euros of petty cash that Egon has carelessly left unstolen in the safe.
Arriving in Munich with the dawn, he leaves the Volkswagen with its Heidelberg registration in a discreet corner of a parking garage in case his creditors have served an order on it. Then he does what he always does when life is closing in on him: he walks.
And because all his life, for reasons far back in his childhood, he has had a natural leaning towards ethnic diversity, his feet lead him almost of their own accord to a street full of Turkish shops and cafés that are just beginning to wake up. The day is sunny, he is hungry, he selects a café at random, lowers his long body cautiously onto a plastic chair that refuses to sit still on the uneven pavement, and asks the waiter for a large medium-sweet Turkish coffee and two poppy-seed rolls with butter and jam. He has barely begun his breakfast when a young woman settles on the chair beside him and with her hand held half across her mouth asks him, in a faltering Turkish-Bavarian accent, whether he would like to go to bed with her for money.
Zara is in her late twenties and improbably, inconsolably beautiful. She wears a thin blue blouse and black brassière, and a black skirt skimpy enough to display her bare thighs. She is dangerously slim. Mundy wrongly assumes drugs. It is also to his later shame that, for longer than he cares to admit, he is half inclined to take her up on her offer. He is sleepless, jobless, womanless and near enough penniless.
But when he takes a closer look at the young woman he is proposing to sleep with, he is conscious of such desperation in her stare and such intelligence behind her eyes, and such a lack of confidence on her part, that he quickly takes a hold of himself, and instead offers her breakfast, which she warily accepts on condition she may take half of it home to her sick mother. Mundy, now hugely grateful to be in contact with a fellow human being in low water, has a better suggestion: she shall eat all the breakfast, and they will together buy food for her mother at one of the halal shops up and down the road.
She hears him without expression, eyes downcast. Desperately empathizing with her, Mundy suspects she is asking herself whether he is just crazy or seriously weird. He strains to appear neither of these things to her, but patently fails. In a gesture that goes straight to his heart, she draws her food with both hands to her own side of the table in case he means to take it back.
In doing so, she reveals her mouth. Her four front teeth are sheared off at the root. While she eats, he scans the street for a pimp. She doesn't seem to have one. Perhaps the café owns her. He doesn't know, but his instincts are already protective. As they rise to leave, it becomes apparent to Zara that her head barely reaches up to Mundy's shoulder, for she starts away from him in alarm. He adopts his tall man's stoop, but she keeps her distance from him. She is by now his sole concern in life. His problems are negligible by comparison with hers. In the halal shop, under his urgent entreaty, she buys a piece of lamb, apple tea, couscous, fruit, honey, vegetables, halva and a giant triangular bar of Toblerone chocolate on sale.
"How many mothers have you got, actually?" he asks her cheerfully, but it's not a joke she shares.
Shopping, she remains tense and tight-lipped, haggling in Turkish from behind her hand, then stabbing her finger at the fruit—not this one, that one. The speed and skill with which she calculates impress him deeply. He may be many kinds of man, but he is no sort of negotiator. When he tries to carry the shopping bags—there are two by now, both weighty—she fights them from him in fierce tugs.
"You want sleep with me?" she asks again impatiently, when she has them safely in her hands. Her message is clear: you've paid for me, so take me and leave me alone.
"No," he replies.
"What you want?"
"To see you safely home."
She shakes her head vigorously. "Not home. Hotel."
He tries to explain that his purposes are friendly rather than sexual but she is too tired to listen to him and begins weeping without changing her facial expression.
He chooses another café and they sit down. Her tears keep rolling but she ignores them. He presses her to talk about herself and she does so without any particular interest in her subject. She seems to have no barriers left. She is a country girl from the plains of Adana, the eldest daughter of a farming family, she tells him in her faltering Bavarian argot while she stares at the table. Her father promised her in marriage to the son of a neighboring farmer. The boy was held up as a computer genius, earning good money in Germany. When he came home to visit the family in Adana, there was a traditional wedding feast, the two farms were declared to be joined, and Zara returned to Munich with her husband, only to discover he was not a computer genius at all, but a full-time, round-the-clock armed bandit. He was twenty-four, she was seventeen and expecting a child by him.
"It was gang," she declares simply. "All boys were bad crooks. They are crazy. Steal cars, sell drugs, make nightclubs, control prostitutes. They do all bad things. Now he is in prison. If he would not be in prison, my brothers will kill him."
Her husband had been sent to prison nine months ago, but had found time to terrify the wits out of his son and smash his wife's face in before he went. A seven-year sentence, other charges pending. One of the gang turned police witness. Her story continues in a monotonous flow as they walk through the town, now in German, now in snatches of Turkish when her German fails her. Sometimes he wonders whether she knows he is still beside her. Mustafa, she says, when he asks the boy's name. She has asked him nothing about himself. She is carrying the shopping bags and he makes no further attempt to carry them for her. She is wearing blue beads, and he remembers from somewhere far back in his life that for superstitious Muslims blue beads ward off the evil eye. She is sniffing but the tears are no longer rolling down her cheeks. He guesses she has made herself cheer up before meeting someone who mustn't know she has been crying. They are in Munich's Westend, which hardly accords with its elegant London equivalent: drab, prewar apartment houses in old grays and browns; washing hanging out to dry in the windows, kids playing on a patch of molting grass. A boy sees their approach, breaks free of his friends, picks up a rock and advances on them menacingly. Zara calls to him in Turkish.
"What do you want?" the boy yells.
"A piece of your Toblerone, please, Mustafa," Mundy says.
The boy stares at him, talks again to his mother, then edges forward, keeping the rock in his right hand while he pokes in the bags with his left. Like his mother, he is gaunt, with shadowed eyes. Like his mother, he seems to have no emotions left.
"And a cup of apple tea," Mundy adds. "With you and all your friends."
Led by Mustafa, who is by now carrying the bags, and escorted by three stalwart dark-eyed boys, Mundy follows Zara up three flights of grimy stone stairs. They reach a steel-lined door, Mustafa delves inside his shirt and with a proprietorial air pulls out a door key on a chain. He steps into the house, accompanied by his friends. Zara steps after them. Mundy waits to be invited.
"You will please come in," Mustafa announces in good Bavarian. "You will be most welcome. But if you touch my mother, we shall kill you."
For the next ten weeks Mundy sleeps on Mustafa's sofa bed in the living room with his legs hanging over the end while Mustafa sleeps with his mother, keeping a baseball bat beside him in case Mundy tries anything on. At first Mustafa refuses to go to school, so Mundy takes him to the zoo and plays ball games with him on the molting grass while Zara stays home and lapses gradually into a state of convalescence, which is Mundy's hope. Bit by bit he assumes the role of secular father to a Muslim child and platonic guardian to a traumatized woman in a state of religious shame. The neighbors, initially suspicious of this gangling English intruder who laughs so much, begin to tolerate him, while Mundy for his part does everything he can to separate himself from his country's hated colonialist reputation. For money they use the rest of his seven hundred euros and the pittance that Zara receives from her Turkish family and German social security. In the evenings she likes to cook and Mundy plays kitchen boy to her. At first she objects to this, then grudgingly allows it. Cooking together becomes the main event of the day. Her rare laughter is like God's gift to him, broken teeth and all. Her life's ambition, he learns, is to qualify as a nurse.
A morning comes when Mustafa announces that he will go to school. Mundy escorts him, and is proudly introduced by Mustafa as his new father. The same week, all three make their first appearance together at the mosque. Expecting a gilded dome and a minaret, Mundy is startled to find himself in a tiled room on an upper floor of a down-at-heel house sandwiched between bridal costumiers, halal shops and stores selling used electrical goods. From his past he remembers that he mustn't point his feet at anyone, or shake hands with women, but place his right hand over his heart and drop his head in respect. With Zara consigned to the women's room, Mustafa takes his hand, guides him to the men's prayer-line and instructs him when to stand, when to make an obeisance, and when to kneel and press his brow to the strip of rush matting that does duty for the soil.
Mustafa's gratification in Mundy is immense. Until now, he has been obliged to sit upstairs with his mother and the younger kids. Thanks to Mundy he is now downstairs with the men. When prayers are over, Mustafa and Mundy may now shake hands with all the men around them, while each expresses the hope that the other's prayers have found a good reception in heaven.
"Study and God will make you wise," the enlightened young imam advises Mundy as he leaves. "If you do not study, you will become the victim of dangerous ideologies. You are married to Zara, I believe?"
Mundy has the grace to blush, and mutters something about, well, hope to one day.
"The formality is not important," the young imam assures him. "Responsibility is all. Be responsible and God will reward you."
A week later Zara gets herself a night job at the kebab café by the station. The manager, having failed to go to bed with her, decides instead to depend on her. She wears the scarf and becomes his star employee, allowed to handle cash and protected by a very tall Englishman. A couple more weeks and Mundy too finds himself a place in the world: as English tour guide at the Linderhof. Next day, Zara pays a solitary visit to the enlightened young imam and his wife. Returning, she closets herself for an hour alone with Mustafa. The same night Mustafa and Mundy exchange beds.
Mundy has known stranger passages in his life, but none, he is convinced, has filled him with such satisfaction. His love for Zara knows no bounds. He loves Mustafa no less, and loves him best for loving his mother.
The English Spoken cattle pen is opening, the usual multicultural gaggle of sightseers shuffles forward. Canadians with red maple leaves on their backpacks, Finns in anoraks and tartan golf caps, Indian women in saris, Australian sheep farmers with air-dried wives, Japanese elders who grimace at him with a pain he has never learned the source of: Mundy knows them all by heart, from the colors of their tour buses to the first names of their rapacious minders who wish only to lure them to the gift shops for the greater good of their commissions. All that is missing from this evening's mix is platoons of Midwestern teenagers with barbed wire round their teeth, but America is celebrating its Victory Over Evil at home, to the dismay of the German tourist industry.
Removing his bowler and brandishing it above his head, Mundy places himself at the front of his flock and leads the march to the main entrance. In his other hand he clutches a home-built soapbox of marine plywood that he has knocked together in the boiler room beneath the apartment block. Other guides employ the staircase as a speaker's platform. Not Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator. Plonking the box at his feet, he steps smartly onto it, to reappear taller than his audience by eighteen inches, the bowler once more aloft.
"English speakers to me then, please, thank you. English listeners, I should be saying. Though by this time in the day I wish you were the speakers. Hah! Not true, really"—the voice kept deliberately low at this stage so that they have to quiet down to hear him—"not running out of steam yet, I promise you. Cameras welcome, ladies and gents, but no videos, please—that's you too, please, sir, thank you—don't ask me why, but my masters assure me that the merest whiff of a video camera will land us in the intellectual-property courts. The normal penalty is a public hanging." No laughter but he doesn't expect it yet from an audience that has spent the last four hours wedged into a bus, and another hour queuing in the heat of the sun. "Gather round me, please, ladies and gentlemen, a little closer, if you will. Plenty of room here in front of me, ladies"—to a bunch of earnest schoolmistresses from Sweden—"Can you hear me over there, young sirs?"—to a clutch of bony teenagers from across the invisible border to Saxony who have wandered into the wrong pen by mistake, but have decided to stay and get a free English lesson. "You can. Good. And can you see me, sir?"—to a diminutive Chinese gentleman. "You can. One personal request, if you don't mind, ladies and gents. Handies, as we call them here in Germany, known otherwise as your mobile telephones. Kindly make sure they're switched off. All done? Then perhaps the last one in will close those doors behind you, sir, and I'll begin. Thank you."
The sunlight is cut off, an artificial dusk is lit by myriad candle-bulbs reflected in gilt mirrors. Mundy's finest moment—one of eight in every working day—is about to begin.
"As the most observant among you will see, we are standing in the relatively modest entrance hall of the Linderhof. Not Linderhof Palace, please, because hof here means farm, and the palace where we are standing was built on the land where the Linder farm once stood. But why Linder? we ask ourselves. Do we have a philologist among us? A professor of words? An expert on the old meanings?"
We do not, which is as well, because Mundy is about to embark on one of his illicit improvisations. For reasons that escape him, he never seems quite to have got his head round the plot. Or perhaps it's a blind spot he has. Sometimes he takes himself by surprise, which is part of the therapy when he is fighting other, more persistent thoughts, such as Iraq, or a threatening letter from his Heidelberg bank which this morning coincided with a demand note from the insurance company.
"Well now, we do have the German word Linde, meaning a lime tree. But does that explain the r? I ask myself." He's flying now. "Mind you, the farm may just have belonged to Mr. Linder, and that's the end of it. But I prefer a different explanation, which is the verb lindern, to relieve, to alleviate, to assuage, to soothe. And I like to think it's the interpretation that appealed most to our poor King Ludwig, if only subliminally. The Linderhof was his soothing place. Well, we all need a bit of soothing, don't we, especially these days? Ludwig had had a rough deal, remember. He was nineteen when he took the throne, he was tyrannized by his father, persecuted by his tutors, bullied by Bismarck, cheated by his courtiers, victimized by corrupt politicians, robbed of his dignity as a king, and he hardly knew his mother."
Has Mundy been similarly mistreated? By the throb in his voice, you would believe so.
"So what does he do, this handsome, overtall, sensitive, abused, proud young man who believes he was appointed by God to rule?" he asks, with all the pained authority of one overtall man empathizing with another. "What does he do when he is systematically stripped bit by bit of the power he was born to? Answer: he builds himself a string of fantasy castles. And who wouldn't?"—warming to his subject—"Palaces with attitude. Illusions of power. The less power he's got, the bigger the illusions he builds. Rather like my gallant prime minister, Mr. Blair, if you want my opinion, but don't quote me"—bemused silence—"And that's why personally I try not to call Ludwig mad. The King of Dreamers is what I prefer to call him. The King of Escape Artists, if you like. A lonely visionary in a lousy world. He lived at night, as you probably know. Didn't like people on the whole and certainly not the ladies. Oh dear me, no!"
The laughter this time comes from a group of Russians who are passing a bottle between them, but Mundy prefers not to hear them. Raised on his homemade soapbox, his bowler hat tilted slightly forward, Guards-style, over his unmanageable mop of hair, he has entered a sphere as rarefied as King Ludwig's. Only seldom does he bestow a glance on the upturned heads below him, or pause to let a child bawl or a bunch of Italians resolve a private disagreement.
"When Ludwig was inside his own head, he was ruler of the universe. Nobody, but nobody, gave him orders. Here at the Linderhof he was the reincarnation of the Sun King, that bronze gentleman you see riding his horse on the table: Louis in French is Ludwig in German. And at Herrenchiemsee a few miles from here, he built his very own Versailles. At Neuschwanstein up the road he was Siegfried, the great German medieval king-warrior, immortalized in opera by Ludwig's idol Richard Wagner. And high up in the mountains, if you're feeling athletic, he built the palace of Schachen, where he duly crowned himself King of Morocco. He'd have been Michael Jackson if he could, but fortunately he hadn't heard of him."
Laughter from round the room by now, but once again Mundy ignores it.
"And His Majesty had his little ways.
- "A triumph...A blazingly good novel. Le Carré’s best in years."—David Kipen, San Francisco Chronicle
- “A searing, startling novel that sweeps through much of the twentieth century and up to the present conflict with Iraq.”—Lev Grossman, Time
- “Unfailingly entertaining...A terrific achievement by the best spy novelist out there—as engrossing, well crafted, and satisfying as anything this observer of the unobserved has produced.”—Matt Konrad, Minneapolis Star Tribune
- On Sale
- Nov 10, 2004
- Page Count
- 464 pages
- Back Bay Books