'Absolute' examines fate of a friendship

Sunday, February 22, 2004

"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."

With this sentence, John le Carre introduces readers to Ted Mundy, the main character of his latest novel, "Absolute Friends" (Little, Brown, $26.95).

As "Absolute Friends" opens, Mundy is on the run from his creditors, his business partner and co-principal of a school for English in Heidelberg, Germany, having fled with the last of their assets.

Mundy had been obliged to creep out of Heidelberg in the dead of night with whatever he could cram into his Volkswagen. But he's managed to put together a happy new life in Munich, where he works as a tour guide and lives with a young Turkish woman and her 11-year-old son.

Then his old friend and colleague, Sasha, re-enters his life. Mundy, the son of a British officer, had met Sasha, a charismatic German activist, in the late 1960s in Berlin. Together they had formed a partnership as spies in the service of British intelligence, a partnership that had concluded with the end of the Cold War.

Sasha arrives with a tantalizing offer: A mysterious billionaire philanthropist named Dimitri wants to enlist their services to create the "Counter-University" to build an "ever-growing army of renegades."

Mundy's meeting with Dimitri is appropriately spooky, and Mundy is instinctively wary. "I believe none of it," he tells himself, "but that doesn't mean it isn't true."

There's plenty of money involved -- which could buy future happiness. And, Mundy reasons, if the Counter-University turns out to be somebody's sick dream, "I remain what I was before I walked through the door: poor but happy."

And there is another reason, if Mundy needed one, and that's Sasha. A happy Sasha is a joy to him, and a wretched Sasha is a rock on his conscience. "Why I should feel responsible for him is a question to be answered in another life," Mundy tells himself.

Le Carre, author of "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" and "The Tailor of Panama," is a master storyteller, and his characters come to life on the novel's pages.

"Absolute Friends" builds slowly, but it's best not to become impatient. Things speed up -- and the author provides a stunning ending.