A year ago now, when the Bush Administration was preparing the world for an American invasion of Iraq, John le Carré wrote a column of scathing, sharp-toothed commentary for the Times of London. “America has entered one of its periods of historical madness,” the piece began, “worse than McCarthyism, worse than the Bay of Pigs and in the long term potentially more disastrous than the Vietnam war.” The master of espionage fiction went on to assert that “the religious cant that will send American troops into battle is perhaps the most sickening aspect of this surreal war-to-be.” In a full-throated critique of “the Bush junta,” le Carré rejected the with-us-or-with-the-terrorists choice Washington offered the rest of the planet and regretted, most of all, the world’s failure to construct any middle ground in the matter of Saddam Hussein. “I’m dead against Bush,” he wrote, “but I would love to see Saddam’s downfall–just not on Bush’s terms and not by his methods. And not under the banner of such outrageous hypocrisy.”
One may not want to begin a consideration of any author’s fiction with reference to his political views. A novel is an implicitly transformative work, after all, and a novelist’s opinions as to the nature of public events are something altogether different. But it is too tempting to relate the two in le Carré’s case. Both the author and the commentator have become increasingly and openly political in recent years. And le Carré doesn’t seem to want readers to miss this point. His most recent book, The Constant Gardener, was a frontal attack on the Third World testing practices of the global pharmaceutical giants, and he chose to add a pointed postscript. “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed,” he wrote, “I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”
Absolute Friends, le Carré’s nineteenth novel in a career that now spans five decades, arrives with no such label attached, but it doesn’t need one. Through the thoughts and conversations of its main characters, le Carré takes on everything from Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Hitler and the partition of British India to the Shah of Iran, the Greek colonels, the Vietnam War and, yes, last year’s invasion of Iraq. Very little of the postwar era is left out, and one is left wondering about the extent to which le Carré has made himself a ventriloquist in this book, speaking more directly through his invented voices than longtime devotees of his fiction might expect.
My guess, with a batch of le Carré’s not infrequent newspaper commentaries at my elbow, is that the main characters in this book–the absolute friends of the title–can often enough be taken to speak quite explicitly for their creator. Like him, they stand for a middle way in the many divisions that beset the world we have made for ourselves–between East and West during the cold war, between American hegemony and Europe’s so far supine response to it in the post-cold war years, between Islam and the West. Call it convergence, as we used to before the Berlin wall came down, or call it multilateralism, as we do now. When le Carré’s protagonist, Ted Mundy, and his longtime friend Sasha speak of these matters it is hard not to hear something of le Carré’s thinking in what they have to say.
But if Absolute Friends were no more than an exhaustive critique of postwar history it would hardly be worth its weight as a work of fiction. And for all the prominence le Carré gives politics in this book, it would be a misreading to make too much of it. In this respect le Carré is coming to resemble Graham Greene, which lands him in elevated company. Greene was probably further left than le Carré, but that is not the point. Political perspective is everywhere evident in the work of both writers–an animating force, if you like. But who would ever think to call the output of either “political novels”?