There’s an unforgettable scene near the end of The Whistle Blower, the 1986 movie starring Michael Caine as a British father searching for the spy who murdered his son. At a funeral set in rural England, Caine weeps with rage and frustration that his efforts to discover the truth will come to nothing. He’s realized that the British spies he has been negotiating with are powerless against the CIA. In his agony, Caine curses the surrender of Britain to the might of Cold War America.
“They have put out the light of the ordinary world,” Caine says.
In his new thriller, Absolute Friends, master spy novelist John Le Carré has taken these themes and updated and revised them to deal with world changes since 9/11. The United Kingdom, still writhing under the humiliation of American rule, now with the help of an obsequious Labor prime minister, is “a rain-swept cemetery for the living dead, powered by a forty-watt bulb.”
But so is the rest of the planet. What’s changed is it is no longer the CIA holding the whip. So who’s in charge now?
Allow me a brief digression to give you a hint, gleaned from a volume that hit the bookstands at virtually the same moment as Le Carré’s new work. According to this book, An End to Evil: How To Win The War On Terror, written by Richard Perle and David Frum, the CIA no longer has the guts to run the empire properly. Instead, it has become “an agency with very strong, mostly liberal policy views [that have] again and again distorted its analysis.”
According to Perle and Frum — resident fellows at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute and key figures in the circle of neoconservatives that have George W. Bush’s ear in matters of war — the “effeminate” CIA must be replaced by hard men, men like the warrior-authors themselves, men who understand that foreign leaders who oppose the empire must be taken down “with no more compunction than a police sharpshooter.” As for domestic critics, they write, “We may be so eager to protect the right to dissent that we lose sight of the difference between dissent and subversion.” That’s chilling stuff.
Absolute Friends, Le Carré’s 19th novel, is a lupine howl against the political triumph of the neo-confidence men of empire and the control of the planet’s natural resources and media by corporate petro-thugs.
The book is also Le Carré’s debut as an unapologetic leftist. The man who wrote The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and other thrillers from a discreet remove has now stepped into the role played first by Eric Ambler and then Graham Greene, both of whom championed the spy novel as an instrument of dissent. Le Carré is taking a beating in The New York Times (under the headline “Le Carré Loses His Cool,” the “cranky old” novelist’s writing is dismissed as “a rant” and “deliberately awkward.”) And he’s been nuanced to death in friendlier quarters such as The Nation.
Absolute Friends is a story about two activists from different cultures who nonetheless share deep personal and political affinity. Protagonist Ted Mundy is the son of an Irish housemaid who died in childbirth and an alcoholic officer in the English colonial army stranded in India. Ted is raised bilingually (Punjabi is the other tongue) and is sent home to the “rain-swept cemetery,” where he knocks about in charity schools until he finds his feet academically in languages, mostly German, at Oxford. As happened so often in the ’60s, his sexual awakening is inseparable from his political education, and soon he is off to Berlin, attending classes by day and sleeping in an anarchist commune by night.
He befriends Sasha, a leader of the student left, a Rudi Dutschke type who is also motherless and estranged from his father. During a riot at a Vietnam war demonstration, Ted rescues the fragile Sasha by taking the blows himself. The Germans deport him back to England. Sasha is stranded in the ebb of German student radicalism and finally defects to East Germany, which he discovers is run by a ruthless intelligence bureaucracy.
These early scenes are among the best in the book. Le Carré evokes the times with a few deft strokes and a narrative that races along like a demonstrator ducking nightsticks. It is all a prelude to the story proper, a fable that explains how, once the Ted and Sasha rediscover each other, the trust forged in battle between the two “absolute” friends becomes the synapse in a Cold War espionage operation that allows them to act as a kind of third camp in a world neatly bifurcated between Stalinists and empire-builders.
After 1989, the two come in from the cold. But the events of 9/11 throw them together again. It’s what they discover about terrorism when they resume their roles as spies and counterspies for British intelligence (and indirectly for the CIA) that reveals Le Carré’s despair about the possibilities for dissent: “They are trying to put us into one bed,” Ted eventually realizes. “Liberals, socialists, Trotskyists, Communists, anarchists, anti-globalists, peace protesters: we are all Sympis, all pinkos. We all hate Jews and America and we are the secret admirers of Osama.”
Precisely. That’s the box the anti-war left has been maneuvered into. And no wonder no one knows what to do about it, according to Le Carré. Doing anything, except perhaps electoral politics (and even that is now suspect), is a sign of incipient Wahhabism.
“Any acts of protest currently performed by the Left only legitimize the rightist conspiracy that we are forced to call democracy,” Ted says at one point. “Our very existence as radicals underpins the authority of our enemies.”
Just when everyone thought the spy thriller died with the Cold War, Le Carré has given the 70-year-old genre new life by abandoning the conventions of realism for the simplicity of fable. Le Carré gives us the Michael Caine of The Whistle Blower and last year’s The Quiet American, grieving for the loss of light in the ordinary world.
Dave Wagner is the co-author, with Paul Buhle, of Hide in Plain Sight: The Hollywood Blacklistees in Film and Television. E-mail [email protected].