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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  • First Published:
    Jan 2004, 464 pages
    Nov 2004, 464 pages

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The laughter this time comes from a group of Russians who are passing a bottle between them, but Mundy prefers not to hear them. Raised on his homemade soapbox, his bowler hat tilted slightly forward, Guards-style, over his unmanageable mop of hair, he has entered a sphere as rarefied as King Ludwig's. Only seldom does he bestow a glance on the upturned heads below him, or pause to let a child bawl or a bunch of Italians resolve a private disagreement.

"When Ludwig was inside his own head, he was ruler of the universe. Nobody, but nobody, gave him orders. Here at the Linderhof he was the reincarnation of the Sun King, that bronze gentleman you see riding his horse on the table: Louis in French is Ludwig in German. And at Herrenchiemsee a few miles from here, he built his very own Versailles. At Neuschwanstein up the road he was Siegfried, the great German medieval king-warrior, immortalized in opera by Ludwig's idol Richard Wagner. And high up in the mountains, if you're feeling athletic, he built the palace of Schachen, where he duly crowned himself King of Morocco. He'd have been Michael Jackson if he could, but fortunately he hadn't heard of him."

Laughter from round the room by now, but once again Mundy ignores it.

"And His Majesty had his little ways. He had his food put on a gold table and sent up to him through a hole in the floor - which in a minute I'm going to show you - so that nobody could watch him eat. He kept the servants up all night and if they annoyed him he'd order them to be flayed alive. If he had one of his antisocial moods on him, he'd talk to you from behind a screen. And kindly bear in mind, please, that all this is happening in the nineteenth century, not the Dark Ages. Out there in the real world they're building railways and iron ships and steam engines and machine guns and cameras. So don't let's fool ourselves that this is long-long-ago and once-upon-a-time. Except for Ludwig, of course. Ludwig had put his life into reverse. He was going back into history just as fast as his money would carry him. Which was the problem, because it was also Bavaria's money."

A downward peek at his wristwatch. Three and a half minutes gone. By now he should be walking up the staircase, his audience trailing after him. He is. Through adjoining walls he can hear the voices of his colleagues, raised like his own: boisterous Frau Doktor Blankenheim, retired teacher, recent Buddhist convert and doyenne of the reading circle; pallid Herr Stettler, cyclist and erotomane; Michel Delarge from Alsace, unfrocked priest. And behind him, coming up the stairs, wave after wave of invincible Japanese infantry led by a tight-stepping Nipponese beauty queen brandishing a puce umbrella that is a far cry from Neville Chamberlain's.

And, somewhere close to him, and not for the first time in his life, the ghost of Sasha.

Is it here on the staircase that Mundy first feels the familiar prickle on his back? In the throne room? In the royal bed-chamber?

In the Hall of Mirrors? Where does the awareness, like an old premonition, steal over him? A hall of mirrors is a deliberate bastion against reality. Multiplied images of reality lose their impact as they recede into infinity. A figure who face to face might instill stark fear or perfect pleasure becomes, in his numberless reflections, a mere premise, a putative form.

Besides which, Mundy is by necessity and training a most watchful man. Here in the Linderhof he does not undertake the simplest maneuver without checking his back and front and all the other approaches to him, either for unwelcome traces of previous lives or for errant members of his present one, such as art thieves, vandals, pickpockets, creditors, writ-servers from Heidelberg, senile tourists struck down by heart attacks, children vomiting on priceless carpets, ladies with small dogs concealed in their handbags, and latterly - on the urgent insistence of the management - suicidally disposed terrorists. Nor must we exclude from this roll of honor the welcome relief, even to a man so happily paired, of a shapely girl whose attributes are best appreciated indirectly.

Copyright © 2004 by David Cornwell

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