Once upon a time in spyland John Le Carré was the master exponent of cool, detachment. His explorations of the twilight world of spies and spy masters, of loyalty extended in the knowledge it might be betrayed, of treason dressed in establishment clothing, of the corrosive effects of the double and triple life were all served up, like the best revenge, cold.
But with the publication of first The Constant Gardener and now Absolute Friends, Le Carré has not only come in from the cold and warmed himself at the fire but poured on the petrol. Mr Smiley has well and truly been replaced by Mr Angry.
In The Constant Gardener (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001) Le Carré compellingly highlighted the complicity of the British government in oppressing the poor of low income countries, in allowing some large pharmaceutical companies to exploit them as medical guinea pigs, and in pumping money into corrupt regimes.
If the book disturbed, then Le Carré’s afterword was chilling: ‘As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holidaypostcard.’
Card-carrying activists would identify with the murdered activist Tessa who ‘had witnessed a monstrous injustice and gone out to fight it.’ Nevertheless, the novel’s focus is on her husband Justin, an honest but blinkered British consular official in Nairobi who goes in search of his wife’s murderers and the reasons behind it. Justin is the ‘constant gardener’ of the title, his English obsession with the cultivation of flowers, the 21st century equivalent of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. But Justin’s journey is also intended to be the reader’s who will discover much that may horrify them and have to do decide how to respond. Still, Le Carré has, like Amos in chapter 1, the skill to get his reader sitting comfortably before they realise that it is not a window they are gazing at but a mirror: Is Justin’s tacit complicity with oppression also ours? And can his discovery of a passion for truth and justice also be ours?
Fresh, then, from pummelling the pharmaceutical companies, in Absolute Friends, Le Carré sets his sights on America and in the final rounds he goes for Uncle Sam with all the intensity and subtlety of Mike Tyson. But Le Carré, like Ali against Forman, is too cunning a fighter to come out with all fists flying. Indeed, the book’s first 250 pages are crafted to get us to the point where his volcanic concluding polemic would seem entirely reasonable to the educated, centrist middle classes who are probably his fans.
Absolute Friends sets before us a history of our post-Second World War times up to the grave, new, post 9/11, post-Iraq world. Le Carré dramatises this through the life story of Ted Mundy, the pre-maritally conceived child of an English Major and an Irish nurse who dies giving birth to him in Pakistan on the first day of its existence. From there his father is eventually forced to retreat in disgrace back to England where young Ted finds himself in an English public school and, to his own bewilderment, ends up tall, successful and at Oxford. There he is introduced to radical politics in the arms of a German radical called Ilse. At the end of their affair, she connects him to her friend Sasha, the absolute friend of the title, then living in Berlin and leading an anti-American protest group who, Le Carré tells us, fulminates thus:
‘He has accused the morally degenerate American lackeys of the so-called government in Bonn of sanitising Germany’s Nazi past with consumerism, and turning the Auschwitz generation into a flock of fat sheep with nothing in their heads but new refrigerators, TV sets and Mercedes cars. He has railed against the Shah and his CIA-backed secret police, the Savak, and spread himself on the subject of the American-sponsored Greek colonels and the “American puppet state of Israel”.’
Neither we, nor Ted, are really convinced. Nor, at this point, are we meant to be. Will Ted’s radicalism be nothing more than the energy of youth? Nevertheless, this is the beginning of a life-long friendship which leads in turn to a joint career in espionage, as Mundy now back in Britain is recruited by the British to handle Sasha who has found a convenient niche in East German’s Stasi.
Their paths separate and the years pass. Ted is married and divorced – the relationship the victim of a double life that neither his wife or his son know anything about. Then he is back in Germany and once more Sasha reappears, enthusiastic as always, but finally in the service of a cause he really believes in and a way to achieve it that may make a longterm difference. Backed by a billionaire, Ted is recruited to set up a counteruniversity to expose all the lies which shape our American-dominated Western world – ‘to foster seminaries of unbought opinion’. So, the Dimitri, the enlightened billionaire, intones:
‘I am speaking of the deliberate corruption of young minds at their most formative stage. Of the lies that are forced on them from the cradle onwards by corporate or state manipulation, if there’s a difference any more between the two which I begin to doubt. I am speaking of the encroachment of corporate power on every university campus in the first, second and third worlds. I am speaking of educational colonisation by means of corporate investment at faculty level, conditional upon the observation of untrue nostrum that are advantageous to the corporate investor, and deleterious for the poor f*** of a student … Warfare is the extension of corporate power by other means. Each thrives off the other and the recent war proves the point in spades.’
Finally, it seems Ted too has found a cause he can really believe in – an opportunity to systematically dismantle the lies that the West has been fed about America and its agenda. He embraces the cause. But with tragic consequences. All of which serve to confirm, at least so Le Carré’s would have us believe, that America is indeed the arrogant, selfserving, corporately-controlled, malevolent octopus of global economic and mind control he thinks they are. Well, he has some points to make but it is altogether too one-dimensional to be convincing or to engage our minds with the core issues surrounding the re-emergence of American political interventionism.
Clearly, there is much to criticise about America – though whether the list of their sins is longer than Britain’s is a moot point. Power brings with it weighty responsibilities and it is sobering to consider that whilst 500,000 marched against the war in London alone, you’d be hard pressed to think of a day in the last 20 years when there were more than 500 people outside the Iraqi embassy demonstrating about the gassing of Kurds and Marsh Arabs, or the flagrant and repeated breaking of international law. Were we really marching for Iraq, for the principle of law, or simply for ourselves?
Nevertheless, the mood in Britain has changed. The current deep disquiet about the role of America in the world does, it seems to me, to be of a different order.
This is not simply envy of their success, or resentment at their hegemony. This is not just a revulsion at cultural colonisation by Hollywood and the major media companies, nor is it only even about the enormous economic power of corporate America or the outrage at trade agreements which so clearly disadvantage poorer nations. These are all concerns. And rightly so. No, the disquiet relates to the question of whether America is now out of anyone’s control. Is there anyone who can restrain them, least of all Britain? Indeed, these days there are many who bewail the fact that America is the only super-power – bring back Brezhnev all is forgiven? This ignores China but it reflects a desire for some nation or group of nations strong enough to affect an American policy decision.
God uses nations as well as individuals, creating a people from Abraham to be a light to other nations, a sign to the world. Later, he uses her as an instrument of his judgement against the tribes of Canaan. Then, as Israel’s loyalty crumbles, he uses other nations to rebuke her, but punishes them if they use their military power without proper restraint. Similarly, Jeremiah, for example, delivers God’s judgment on all the major powers of the time. (cf Jeremiah 46:1 ff) This we know because the Bible tells us. However, discerning divine purpose in contemporary history is a much more difficult discipline. Political authority is given for the benefit of humankind (Romans 13:4) and ultimately to the glory of God. America then, like Britain, must consider, as she seeks God’s guidance and blessing, whether her actions bring justice and display mercy, or are merely self-serving.
In the first half of the 20th century, America had to be coaxed or bombed out of their isolationism – in the First World War and in the Second. Like Tolkien’s Ents, they needed to see and embrace the duty to the world that their power had brought them. And they did – intervening in two World Wars. In opposing Hitler and Stalin, they were certainly on the side of the angels. In the 50s and 60s and 70s, they exercised their power not only in keeping Europeans safe from Russian occupation but in repeated interventions in the name of democracy. These were not primarily fuelled by imperialist design but rather by a desire to defeat communism and bring democracy to the world – in that order. Hence the debacle in Chile.
Vietnam, however, rocked US confidence and so did 9/11. But the response to the two shocks has been different. Some argue that since 9/11 America has rediscovered itself, learned once again to cherish the things that do make it special – democracy, free speech, opportunity for most, a fine communitarian tradition, a lavish philanthropy, and so on. And that is true but there is also the fear that 9/11 has fundamentally changed the terms on which America will seek to intervene. Will she be much less interested in bringing democracy and freedom to others and much more interested in her own interests at any cost? In sum, has the Giant who has so long protected us been goaded into becoming a bully? Le Carré thinks so.
I hope he’s wrong – for America’s sake as much as ours. But one thing is clear: Le Carré has changed. He’s 72 and he sounds like a young radical – tinker, tailor, writer, protester. It hasn’t yet made him a better novelist but it’s made him into a man who wants to change the world and use his talent to do it. Amen to that.
Absolute Friends, Hodder & Stoughton, 2003 The Constant Gardener, Hodder & Stoughton, 2001