Absolute Friends, by John Le Carre. Little, Brown. 400 pages. $26.95.
Few writers can introduce a character with the skill or panache of John LeCarre. The opening chapter of his new novel, Absolute Friends, offers us the splendidly complex Ted Mundy, an English-language tour guide at a Bavarian castle.
Zeroing in on Mundy through the eyes of a tourist, LeCarre wonders, "Who is this Ted Mundy?... 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."
Mundy is a mothballed Cold War spy fallen on hard times, and we meet him just as he is about to reunite with an old contact who will lure him back into action.
It is a promising beginning, told with elegance and wit, and for a while LeCarre's brilliance burns so brightly that we don't really mind when he departs the here and now for 220 pages of flashbacks. It's all leading us back toward a present-day confrontation, we're led to believe, when the two ex-comrades will presumably be up to their necks in some plot having to do with the current war in Iraq.
The flashback sequences are rich in character, as well as in the usual deft touches of spy "tradecraft." And, as the author hinted at the beginning, Mundy turns out to be one of those malleable personalities common to LeCarre's fiction -- so easily adaptable to the duplicities of the secret world that he is no longer certain who he is, or what he stands for.
It is when the tale returns to the present that the book begins to unravel. Instead of sticking to his strengths, LeCarre turns to polemics, venting his spleen at U.S. foreign policy. Dialog turns into lectures. Subtle turns of plot give way to blunt and predictable parables. And the author woodenly ties up his loose ends with a sermonizing final chapter, diagramming all the working parts of the whole wobbly structure; as if we hadn't already figured out where he was leading poor Mundy, who by the end has been duped even more than the reader.
LeCarre exhibited similar symptoms in his previous novel, The Constant Gardener, wearing his heart on his sleeve in a crusade against the pharmaceutical industry. It is discouraging to see the tendency amplified this time around.
It's not as if America's behavior in Iraq didn't offer plenty of material he might have exploited to similar effect, yet by subtler means. Imagine, for example, what he might have done by fictionalizing the apparent internal battle between Bush Administration hawks and U.S. intelligence professionals -- the ones who kept undercutting the White House's pretext for war.
But commentators who inevitably decry the book as "anti-American" will be missing the point. Graham Greene's 1955 classic, The Quiet American, was similarly decried, yet rose above the jingoistic carping on its literary merits. LeCarre, however, leaves behind much of his literary judgment in his rush to shout from the soapbox.
Staff writer Dan Fesperman has covered three wars for The Sun, including the fighting in Afghanistan in late 2001, and was a correspondent in Berlin for the paper. His latest novel, The Small Boat of Great Sorrows, recently won Britain's Ian Fleming Steel Dagger Award for the best thriller of 2003.