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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    Jan 2004, 464 pages
    Nov 2004, 464 pages

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When he came home to visit the family in Adana, there was a traditional wedding feast, the two farms were declared to be joined, and Zara returned to Munich with her husband, only to discover he was not a computer genius at all, but a fulltime, round-the-clock armed bandit. He was twenty-four, she was seventeen and expecting a child by him.

"It was gang," she declares simply. "All boys were bad crooks. They are crazy. Steal cars, sell drugs, make nightclubs, control prostitutes. They do all bad things. Now he is in prison. If he would not be in prison, my brothers will kill him."

Her husband had been sent to prison nine months ago, but had found time to terrify the wits out of his son and smash his wife's face in before he went. A seven-year sentence, other charges pending. One of the gang turned police witness. Her story continues in a monotonous flow as they walk through the town, now in German, now in snatches of Turkish when her German fails her. Sometimes he wonders whether she knows he is still beside her. Mustafa, she says, when he asks the boy's name. She has asked him nothing about himself. She is carrying the shopping bags and he makes no further attempt to carry them for her. She is wearing blue beads, and he remembers from somewhere far back in his life that for superstitious Muslims blue beads ward off the evil eye. She is sniffing but the tears are no longer rolling down her cheeks. He guesses she has made herself cheer up before meeting someone who mustn't know she has been crying. They are in Munich's Westend, which hardly accords with its elegant London equivalent: drab, prewar apartment houses in old grays and browns; washing hanging out to dry in the windows, kids playing on a patch of molting grass. A boy sees their approach, breaks free of his friends, picks up a rock and advances on them menacingly. Zara calls to him in Turkish.

"What do you want?" the boy yells.

"A piece of your Toblerone, please, Mustafa," Mundy says. The boy stares at him, talks again to his mother, then edges forward, keeping the rock in his right hand while he pokes in the bags with his left. Like his mother, he is gaunt, with shadowed eyes. Like his mother, he seems to have no emotions left.

"And a cup of apple tea," Mundy adds. "With you and all your friends."

Led by Mustafa, who is by now carrying the bags, and escorted by three stalwart dark-eyed boys, Mundy follows Zara up three flights of grimy stone stairs. They reach a steellined door, Mustafa delves inside his shirt and with a proprietorial air pulls out a door key on a chain. He steps into the house, accompanied by his friends. Zara steps after them. Mundy waits to be invited.

"You will please come in," Mustafa announces in good Bavarian. "You will be most welcome. But if you touch my mother, we shall kill you."

For the next ten weeks Mundy sleeps on Mustafa's sofa bed in the living room with his legs hanging over the end while Mustafa sleeps with his mother, keeping a baseball bat beside him in case Mundy tries anything on. At first Mustafa refuses to go to school, so Mundy takes him to the zoo and plays ball games with him on the molting grass while Zara stays home and lapses gradually into a state of convalescence, which is Mundy's hope. Bit by bit he assumes the role of secular father to a Muslim child and platonic guardian to a traumatized woman in a state of religious shame. The neighbors, initially suspicious of this gangling English intruder who laughs so much, begin to tolerate him, while Mundy for his part does everything he can to separate himself from his country's hated colonialist reputation. For money they use the rest of his seven hundred euros and the pittance that Zara receives from her Turkish family and German social security. In the evenings she likes to cook and Mundy plays kitchen boy to her. At first she objects to this, then grudgingly allows it.

Copyright © 2004 by David Cornwell

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