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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Cooking together becomes the main event of the day. Her rare laughter is like God's gift to him, broken teeth and all. Her life's ambition, he learns, is to qualify as a nurse.

A morning comes when Mustafa announces that he will go to school. Mundy escorts him, and is proudly introduced by Mustafa as his new father. The same week, all three make their first appearance together at the mosque. Expecting a gilded dome and a minaret, Mundy is startled to find himself in a tiled room on an upper floor of a down-at-heel house sandwiched between bridal costumiers, halal shops and stores selling used electrical goods. From his past he remembers that he mustn't point his feet at anyone, or shake hands with women, but place his right hand over his heart and drop his head in respect. With Zara consigned to the women's room, Mustafa takes his hand, guides him to the men's prayer-line and instructs him when to stand, when to make an obeisance, and when to kneel and press his brow to the strip of rush matting that does duty for the soil.

Mustafa's gratification in Mundy is immense. Until now, he has been obliged to sit upstairs with his mother and the younger kids. Thanks to Mundy he is now downstairs with the men. When prayers are over, Mustafa and Mundy may now shake hands with all the men around them, while each expresses the hope that the other's prayers have found a good reception in heaven.

"Study and God will make you wise," the enlightened young imam advises Mundy as he leaves. "If you do not study, you will become the victim of dangerous ideologies. You are married to Zara, I believe?"

Mundy has the grace to blush, and mutters something about, well, hope to one day.

"The formality is not important," the young imam assures him. "Responsibility is all. Be responsible and God will reward you."

A week later Zara gets herself a night job at the kebab café by the station. The manager, having failed to go to bed with her, decides instead to depend on her. She wears the scarf and becomes his star employee, allowed to handle cash and protected by a very tall Englishman. A couple more weeks and Mundy too finds himself a place in the world: as English tour guide at the Linderhof. Next day, Zara pays a solitary visit to the enlightened young imam and his wife. Returning, she closets herself for an hour alone with Mustafa. The same night Mustafa and Mundy exchange beds.

Mundy has known stranger passages in his life, but none, he is convinced, has filled him with such satisfaction. His love for Zara knows no bounds. He loves Mustafa no less, and loves him best for loving his mother.

The English Spoken cattle pen is opening, the usual multicultural gaggle of sightseers shuffles forward. Canadians with red maple leaves on their backpacks, Finns in anoraks and tartan golf caps, Indian women in saris, Australian sheep farmers with air-dried wives, Japanese elders who grimace at him with a pain he has never learned the source of: Mundy knows them all by heart, from the colors of their tour buses to the first names of their rapacious minders who wish only to lure them to the gift shops for the greater good of their commissions. All that is missing from this evening's mix is platoons of Midwestern teenagers with barbed wire round their teeth, but America is celebrating its Victory Over Evil at home, to the dismay of the German tourist industry.

Removing his bowler and brandishing it above his head, Mundy places himself at the front of his flock and leads the march to the main entrance. In his other hand he clutches a home-built soapbox of marine plywood that he has knocked together in the boiler room beneath the apartment block.

Other guides employ the staircase as a speaker's platform. Not Ted Mundy, our Hyde Park Corner orator. Plonking the box at his feet, he steps smartly onto it, to reappear taller than his audience by eighteen inches, the bowler once more aloft.

Copyright © 2004 by David Cornwell

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