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
    Paperback:
    Nov 2004, 464 pages

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To assist him in this vigil, Mundy has covertly appointed certain vantage points or static posts: here a dark painting, conveniently glazed, that looks backward down the stairs; there a bronze urn that supplies a wide-angle image of whoever is to either side of him; and now the Hall of Mirrors itself, where a multitude of replicated Sashas hovers in miles and miles of golden corridor.

Or not.
Is he but a Sasha of the mind, a Friday-night mirage? Mundy has seen his share of almost-Sashas in the years since they took leave of one another, as he is quick to remind himself:

Sashas down to their last euro who spot him from across the street and, spidery with hunger and enthusiasm, come hobbling through traffic to embrace him; prosperous, sleek Sashas with fur on their coat collars, who wait artfully in doorways to spring out at him or clatter down public stairways yelling, Teddy, Teddy, it's your old friend, Sasha! Yet no sooner does Mundy stop and turn, his smile faithfully aloft, than the apparition has vanished or, transmuting itself into an entirely different person, slunk off to join the common crowd.

It is in his quest for solid verification therefore that Mundy now casually changes his vantage point, first by flinging out a rhetorical arm, then by spinning round on his box to point out to his audience the view, the splendid, the magnificent view, afforded from the royal bedstead - just follow my arm, ladies and gents - of the Italian waterfall descending the northern slopes of the Hennenkopf.

"Imagine you're lying there!" he urges his audience with a rush of exuberance to match the spectacular torrent. "With somebody who loves you! Well, probably not in Ludwig's case" - gusts of hysterical laughter from the Russians - "but lying there anyway, surrounded by all that royal Bavarian gold and blue! And you wake up one sunny morning, and you open your eyes, and you look out of the window at - bang."

And on the word bang nails him: Sasha - good God, man, where the hell have you been? Except that Mundy says none of this, neither does he indicate it by so much as a slip of the eye, because Sasha in the Wagnerian spirit of the place is wearing his invisibility hat, his Tarnkappe as they used to call it, the black Basque beret worn severely across the brow that warns against the slightest indiscretion, particularly in time of war.

In addition to which - lest Mundy has by any chance forgotten his clandestine manners - Sasha has placed a curled and pensive forefinger to his lips, not in warning but rather in the dreamy pose of a man relishing the vicarious experience of waking up one sunny morning and looking out of the window at the waterfall coming down the Hennenkopf. The gesture is superfluous. Not the keenest watcher, not the smartest surveillance camera in the world would have caught a hint of their reunion.

But Sasha all the same: Sasha the midget-sentry, vital even when he is motionless, poised that little bit apart from the person nearest him in order to escape the comparison of height, elbows lifted from his sides as if he's about to take off, his fiery brown eyes aimed just above your eyeline - never mind that, like Mundy, you're taller than he is by a head and a half - bonding, accusing, searching, challenging, eyes to inflame you, question and unsettle you. Sasha, as I live and breathe.

The tour is ending. House rules forbid guides to solicit but allow them to hover at the doorway, nodding their departing audience into the sunlight and wishing them a safe and simply marvelous holiday. The take has always varied, but war has reduced it to a trickle. Sometimes Mundy stands empty-handed till the end, his bowler roosting on a convenient bust lest it be mistaken for anything as vulgar as a begging bowl. Sometimes a devoted middle-aged couple or a schoolteacher with unruly charges will dart shyly forward and press a banknote on him, then dart back into the throng.

Copyright © 2004 by David Cornwell

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