An absolutely triumphant bestseller - everywhere hailed as the masterpiece toward which John le Carrý has been building since the fall of communism. This thrilling tale of loyalty, betrayal, and international espionage spans the lives of two friends from the riot-torn West Berlin of the 1960s to the grimy looking-glass of Cold War Europe to the present day of terrorism and uncertain new alliances - alliances that aren't always what they seem to be.
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Little, Brown and Company
August 01, 2005
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Excerpt from Absolute Friends by John le Carre
ON THE DAY his destiny returned to claim him, Ted Mundy was sporting a bowler hat and balancing on a soapbox in one of Mad King Ludwig's castles in Bavaria. It wasn't a classic bowler, more your Laurel and Hardy than Savile Row. It wasn't an English hat, despite the Union Jack blazoned in Oriental silk on the handkerchief pocket of his elderly tweed jacket. The maker's grease-stained label on the inside of the crown proclaimed it to be the work of Messrs. Steinmatzky & Sons, of Vienna.
And since it wasn't his own hat - as he hastened to explain to any luckless stranger, preferably female, who fell victim to his boundless accessibility - neither was it a piece of self-castigation. "It's a hat of office, madam," he would insist, garrulously begging her pardon in a set piece he had off perfectly. "A gem of history, briefly entrusted to me by generations of previous incumbents of my post - wandering scholars, poets, dreamers, men of the cloth - and every man jack of us a loyal servant of the late King Ludwig - hah!" The hah! perhaps being some kind of involuntary throwback to his military childhood. "Well, what's the alternative, I mean to say? You can hardly ask a thoroughbred Englishman to tote an umbrella like the Japanese guides, can you? Not here in Bavaria, my goodness, no. Not fifty miles from where our own dear Neville Chamberlain made his pact with the devil. Well, can you, madam?"
And if his audience, as is often the case, turns out to be too pretty to have heard of Neville Chamberlain or know which devil is referred to, then in a rush of generosity the thoroughbred Englishman will supply his beginners' version of the shameful Munich Agreement of 1938, in which he does not shy from remarking how even our beloved British monarchy, not to mention our aristocracy and the Tory Party here on earth, favored practically any accommodation with Hitler rather than a war.
"British establishment absolutely terrified of Bolshevism, you see," he blurts, in the elaborate telegramese that, like hah!, overcomes him when he is in full cry. "Powers-that-be in America no different. All any of 'em ever wanted was to turn Hitler loose on the Red Peril." And how in German eyes, therefore, Neville Chamberlain's rolled-up umbrella remains to this very day, madam, the shameful emblem of British appeasement of Our Dear Fýhrer, his invariable name for Adolf Hitler. "I mean frankly, in this country, as an Englishman, I'd rather stand in the rain without one. Still, that's not what you came here for, is it? You came to see Mad Ludwig's favorite castle, not listen to an old bore ranting on about Neville Chamberlain. What? What? Been a pleasure, madam" - doffing the clown's bowler in self-parody and revealing an anarchic forelock of salt-and-pepper hair that bounces out of its trap like a greyhound the moment it's released - "Ted Mundy, jester to the Court of Ludwig, at your service."
And who do they think they've met, these punters - or Billies, as the British tour operators prefer to call them - if they think at all? Who is this Ted Mundy to them as a fleeting memory? A bit of a comedian, obviously. A failure at something - a professional English bloody fool in a bowler and a Union Jack, all things to all men and nothing to himself, fifty in the shade, nice enough chap, wouldn't necessarily trust him with my daughter. And those vertical wrinkles above the eyebrows like fine slashes of a scalpel, could be anger, could be nightmares: Ted Mundy, tour guide.
It's three minutes short of five o'clock in the evening, late May, and the last tour of the day is about to begin. The air is turning chilly, a red spring sun is sinking in the young beech trees.