Excerpt from Absolute Friends by John Le Carre, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Absolute Friends

By John Le Carre

Absolute Friends
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  • Hardcover: Jan 2004,
    464 pages.
    Paperback: Nov 2004,
    464 pages.

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Chapter 1

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. It wasn't a classic bowler, more your Laurel and Hardy than Savile Row. It wasn't an English hat, despite the Union Jack blazoned in Oriental silk on the handkerchief pocket of his elderly tweed jacket. The maker's grease-stained label on the inside of the crown proclaimed it to be the work of Messrs. Steinmatzky & Sons, of Vienna.

And since it wasn't his own hat - as he hastened to explain to any luckless stranger, preferably female, who fell victim to his boundless accessibility - neither was it a piece of self-castigation. "It's a hat of office, madam," he would insist, garrulously begging her pardon in a set piece he had off perfectly. "A gem of history, briefly entrusted to me by generations of previous incumbents of my post - wandering scholars, poets, dreamers, men of the cloth - and every man jack of us a loyal servant of the late King Ludwig - hah!" The hah! perhaps being some kind of involuntary throwback to his military childhood. "Well, what's the alternative, I mean to say? You can hardly ask a thoroughbred Englishman to tote an umbrella like the Japanese guides, can you? Not here in Bavaria, my goodness, no. Not fifty miles from where our own dear Neville Chamberlain made his pact with the devil. Well, can you, madam?"

And if his audience, as is often the case, turns out to be too pretty to have heard of Neville Chamberlain or know which devil is referred to, then in a rush of generosity the thoroughbred Englishman will supply his beginners' version of the shameful Munich Agreement of 1938, in which he does not shy from remarking how even our beloved British monarchy, not to mention our aristocracy and the Tory Party here on earth, favored practically any accommodation with Hitler rather than a war.

"British establishment absolutely terrified of Bolshevism, you see," he blurts, in the elaborate telegramese that, like hah!, overcomes him when he is in full cry. "Powers-that-be in America no different. All any of 'em ever wanted was to turn Hitler loose on the Red Peril." And how in German eyes, therefore, Neville Chamberlain's rolled-up umbrella remains to this very day, madam, the shameful emblem of British appeasement of Our Dear Fuhrer, his invariable name for Adolf Hitler. "I mean frankly, in this country, as an Englishman, I'd rather stand in the rain without one. Still, that's not what you came here for, is it? You came to see Mad Ludwig's favorite castle, not listen to an old bore ranting on about Neville Chamberlain. What? What? Been a pleasure, madam" - doffing the clown's bowler in self-parody and revealing an anarchic forelock of salt-and-pepper hair that bounces out of its trap like a greyhound the moment it's released - "Ted Mundy, jester to the Court of Ludwig, at your service."

And who do they think they've met, these punters - or Billies, as the British tour operators prefer to call them - if they think at all? Who is this Ted Mundy to them as a fleeting memory? 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: Ted Mundy, tour guide.

It's three minutes short of five o'clock in the evening, late May, and the last tour of the day is about to begin. The air is turning chilly, a red spring sun is sinking in the young beech trees. Ted Mundy perches like a giant grasshopper on the balcony, knees up, bowler tipped against the dying rays. He is poring over a rumpled copy of the Süddeutsche Zeitung that he keeps rolled up like a dog-chew in an inner pocket of his jacket for these moments of respite between tours. The Iraqi war officially ended little more than a month ago. Mundy, its unabashed opponent, scrutinizes the lesser headlines: Prime Minister Tony Blair will travel to Kuwait to express his thanks to the Kuwaiti people for their cooperation in the successful conflict.

Copyright © 2004 by David Cornwell

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