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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"Humph," says Mundy aloud, brows furrowed. During his tour, Mr. Blair will make a brief stopover in Iraq. The emphasis will be on reconstruction rather than triumphalism.

"I should bloody well hope so," Mundy growls, his glower intensifying.

Mr. Blair has no doubt whatever that Iraq's weapons of mass destruction will shortly be found. U.S. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, on the other hand, speculates that the Iraqis may have destroyed them before the war began. "Why don't you make up your stupid minds then?" Mundy harrumphs.

His day thus far has followed its usual complex and unlikely course. Prompt at six he rises from the bed he shares with his young Turkish partner, Zara. Tiptoeing across the corridor he wakes her eleven-year-old son, Mustafa, in time for him to wash and clean his teeth, say his morning prayers, eat the breakfast of bread, olives, tea and chocolate spread that Mundy has meantime prepared for him. All this is done in an atmosphere of great stealth. Zara works late shift in a kebab cafe close to Munich's main railway station, and must not on any account be woken. Since starting her night job she has been arriving home around three in the morning, in the care of a friendly Kurdish taxi driver who lives in the same block. Muslim ritual should then permit her to say a quick prayer before sunrise and enjoy eight hours of good sleep, which is what she needs. But Mustafa's day begins at seven, and he too must pray. It took all Mundy's powers of persuasion, and Mustafa's also, to convince Zara that Mundy could preside over her son's devotions, and she could get her hours in. Mustafa is a quiet, catlike child, with a cap of black hair, scared brown eyes and a raucous boing-boing voice.

From the apartment block - a shabby box of weeping concrete and external wiring - man and boy pick their way across wasteland to a bus shelter covered in graffiti, much of it abusive. The block is what these days is called an ethnic village: Kurds, Yemenis and Turks live packed together in it. Other children are already assembled here, some with mothers or fathers. It would be reasonable for Mundy to consign Mustafa to their care, but he prefers to ride with him to the school and shake his hand at the gates, sometimes formally kissing him on both cheeks. In the twilight time before Mundy appeared in his life, Mustafa suffered humiliation and fear. He needs rebuilding.

Returning from school to the apartment takes twenty minutes of Mundy's huge strides, and he arrives with one half of him hoping Zara is still asleep and the other half that she is just awake, in which case she will make at first drowsy, then increasingly passionate love with him before he leaps into his elderly Volkswagen Beetle and joins the southbound traffic for the seventy-minute drive to the Linderhof and work.

The journey is irksome but necessary. A year ago, all three members of the family were separately in despair. Today they are a fighting force bent upon improving their collective lives. The story of how this miracle came about is one that Mundy recounts to himself whenever the traffic threatens to drive him mad:

He is on his uppers.
He is practically on the run.

Egon, his business partner and coprincipal of their struggling Academy of Professional English, has fled with the last of the assets. Mundy himself has been obliged to creep out of Heidelberg at dead of night with whatever he can cram into the Volkswagen, plus 704 euros of petty cash that Egon has carelessly left unstolen in the safe.

Arriving in Munich with the dawn, he leaves the Volkswagen with its Heidelberg registration in a discreet corner of a parking garage in case his creditors have served an order on it. Then he does what he always does when life is closing in on him: he walks.

And because all his life, for reasons far back in his childhood, he has had a natural leaning towards ethnic diversity, his feet lead him almost of their own accord to a street full of Turkish shops and cafés that are just beginning to wake up.

Copyright © 2004 by David Cornwell

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