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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"English speakers to me then, please, thank you. English listeners, I should be saying. Though by this time in the day I wish you were the speakers. Hah! Not true, really" - the voice kept deliberately low at this stage so that they have to quiet down to hear him - "not running out of steam yet, I promise you. Cameras welcome, ladies and gents, but no videos, please - that's you too, please, sir, thank you - don't ask me why, but my masters assure me that the merest whiff of a video camera will land us in the intellectual-property courts. The normal penalty is a public hanging." No laughter but he doesn't expect it yet from an audience that has spent the last four hours wedged into a bus, and another hour queuing in the heat of the sun. "Gather round me, please, ladies and gentlemen, a little closer, if you will. Plenty of room here in front of me, ladies" - to a bunch of earnest school-mistresses from Sweden - "Can you hear me over there, young sirs?" - to a clutch of bony teenagers from across the invisible border to Saxony who have wandered into the wrong pen by mistake, but have decided to stay and get a free English lesson. "You can. Good. And can you see me, sir?" - to a diminutive Chinese gentleman. "You can. One personal request, if you don't mind, ladies and gents. Handies, as we call them here in Germany, known otherwise as your mobile telephones. Kindly make sure they're switched off. All done? Then perhaps the last one in will close those doors behind you, sir, and I'll begin. Thank you."

The sunlight is cut off, an artificial dusk is lit by myriad candle-bulbs reflected in gilt mirrors. Mundy's finest moment - one of eight in every working day - is about to begin.

"As the most observant among you will see, we are standing in the relatively modest entrance hall of the Linderhof.

Not Linderhof Palace, please, because hof here means farm, and the palace where we are standing was built on the land where the Linder farm once stood. But why Linder? we ask ourselves. Do we have a philologist among us? A professor of words? An expert on the old meanings?"

We do not, which is as well, because Mundy is about to embark on one of his illicit improvisations. For reasons that escape him, he never seems quite to have got his head round the plot. Or perhaps it's a blind spot he has. Sometimes he takes himself by surprise, which is part of the therapy when he is fighting other, more persistent thoughts, such as Iraq, or a threatening letter from his Heidelberg bank which this morning coincided with a demand note from the insurance company.

"Well now, we do have the German word Linde, meaning a lime tree. But does that explain the r? I ask myself." He's flying now. "Mind you, the farm may just have belonged to Mr. Linder, and that's the end of it. But I prefer a different explanation, which is the verb lindern, to relieve, to alleviate, to assuage, to soothe. And I like to think it's the interpretation that appealed most to our poor King Ludwig, if only subliminally. The Linderhof was his soothing place. Well, we all need a bit of soothing, don't we, especially these days? Ludwig had had a rough deal, remember. He was nineteen when he took the throne, he was tyrannized by his father, persecuted by his tutors, bullied by Bismarck, cheated by his courtiers, victimized by corrupt politicians, robbed of his dignity as a king, and he hardly knew his mother."

Has Mundy been similarly mistreated? By the throb in his voice, you would believe so.

"So what does he do, this handsome, overtall, sensitive, abused, proud young man who believes he was appointed by God to rule?" he asks, with all the pained authority of one overtall man empathizing with another. "What does he do when he is systematically stripped bit by bit of the power he was born to? Answer: he builds himself a string of fantasy castles. And who wouldn't?" - warming to his subject - "Palaces with attitude. Illusions of power. The less power he's got, the bigger the illusions he builds. Rather like my gallant prime minister, Mr. Blair, if you want my opinion, but don't quote me" - bemused silence - "And that's why personally I try not to call Ludwig mad. The King of Dreamers is what I prefer to call him. The King of Escape Artists, if you like. A lonely visionary in a lousy world. He lived at night, as you probably know. Didn't like people on the whole and certainly not the ladies. Oh dear me, no!"

Copyright © 2004 by David Cornwell

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