John le Carré
John le Carré; drawing by David Levine


The best recent novel about terrorism was published in 1983, and its author was John le Carré, better known at the time as a crafter of cautionary tales about the intelligence battles of the cold war. The Little Drummer Girl, reissued this year in paperback, tells the story of an Israeli intelligence operation to foil a frighteningly effective Palestinian terror cell. The leader of the Palestinian group, an expert bomb-maker known only as Khalil, is obsessively security-conscious, and he has succeeded in wrapping himself so deeply in layers of deception and camouflage that the Israelis decide they can track him down only by resorting to the most unorthodox of scams. As their unlikely agent they choose Charlie, a small-time British actress of romantic left-wing politics whose interest in radical causes has brought her into brief contact with one of the terrorists. Kurtz, the mastermind behind the Israeli operation, explains himself to a colleague in a passage that is worth quoting at length:

“‘Put in an agent, Schulmann,’ Misha Gavron shrieks at me from halfway inside his desk. ‘Sure, General,’ I tell him. ‘I’ll find you an agent. I’ll train him, help him trail his coat, gain attention in the right places, feed him to the opposition. I’ll do whatever you ask. And you know the first thing they’ll do?’ I say to him. ‘They’ll invite him to authenticate himself. To go shoot a bank guard or an American soldier. Or bomb a restaurant. Or deliver a nice suitcase to someone. Blow him up. Is that what you want? Is that what you are inviting me to do, General—put in an agent, then sit back and watch him kill our people for the enemy?'” Once again, he cast Alexis the unhappy smile of someone who was also at the mercy of unreasonable superiors. “Terrorist organisations don’t carry passengers, Paul. I told Misha this. They don’t have secretaries, typists, coding clerks, or any of the people who would normally make natural agents without being in the front line. They require a special kind of penetration. ‘You want to crack the terror target these days,’ I told him, ‘you practically have to build yourself your own terrorist first.'”

In itself, of course, there is nothing new about the idea of creating a new identity (or a “legend,” in the jargon of the trade) for an intelligence operative. But Kurtz has something far more radical in mind—something commensurate with the ruthlessness of the opponent he is trying to infiltrate. He wants to “build his own terrorist,” and to do this he must graft an elaborately crafted “fiction,” as he calls it, onto Charlie’s life. (Ironically enough, it’s precisely her life they want—in stark contrast to the usual undercover agent, Charlie will keep her own name and address until the end.) To do this he creates a team that includes not only the usual case officers and surveillance experts but also psychologists, forgers, linguists, even a writer of potboiler novels.

The Israelis are happy to benefit from Charlie’s skills as an actress, naturally, but they have also taken care to provide themselves with some other powerful advantages over the enemy. For one thing, they have already managed to compromise one of the members of the cell, Khalil’s brother Michel. They have been keeping him under surveillance, and when the time is right, they kidnap, interrogate, and ultimately kill him—all of it carefully exploited and timed to serve the larger aim of creating an imaginary love affair between him and Charlie. How the Israelis manage to do this is too complicated to relate here, but suffice it to say that this “theater of the real,” as Kurtz calls it, is carefully fitted out with all the props, illusions, and supporting actors sufficient to fool anyone watching from the wings—so thoroughly that Charlie’s own sense of self begins to wobble. At one point her handlers present her with a diary that will document the story of her romance with Michel:

“Since you do not keep a diary, we decided to keep one for you,”he explained. Gingerly, she accepted it and pulled away the cellophane. She took out the pencil. It was lightly dented with teethmarks, which was what she still did with pencils: chewed them. She leafed through half a dozen pages. Schwili’s entries were sparse but, with Leon’s flair and Miss Bach’s electronic memory, all her own. Over the Nottingham period, nothing: Michel had descended on her without warning. For York, a big “M,” with a question mark and a ring around it. In the corner of the same day, a long, contemplative doodle, the sort she did when she was daydreaming. Her car was featured: Fiat to Eustace, 9 a.m. Her mother also: 1 week to Mum’s birthday. Buy present now. So also was Alastair: A to Isle of Wight—Kellogg’s commercial? He hadn’t gone, she remembered; Kellogg’s found a better and more sober star. For her monthly periods, wavy lines, and once or twice the facetious entry off games. Turning forward to the Greek holiday, she found the name Mykonos, printed in large pensive capitals, and beside it the departure and arrival times of the charter. But when she came to the day of her arrival in Athens, the whole double page was illuminated with a flock of soaring birds, in blue and red ballpoint like a sailor’s tattoo. She dropped the diary into the handbag and closed the catch with a snap. It was too much. She felt dirty and invaded. She wanted new people she could still surprise—people who could not fake her feelings and her handwriting so that she could no longer distinguish them from the originals.

The diary, along with other corroborating evidence that includes a voluminous and completely fictionalized lovers’ correspondence, will be allowed to fall into the hands of the enemy—and it is this proof of her relationship with Michel that will “authenticate” Charlie in the eyes of Khalil and enable her to be drawn deeply into the Palestinian terrorist underground.


The plan succeeds magnificently. Though it breaks down at the last moment, the “fiction” does manage to draw Khalil out from behind the scrim of intermediaries and fake identities that have hidden him from the sight of his hunters, and he is duly eliminated. But along the way Charlie has been plunged deep into the story of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict in all of its unsparing intensity, and she will never be the same again. In part her transformation is the product of her personal experience of the violence and suffering on both sides of the divide, and her identification (ironically encouraged by the Israelis) with the dispossessed Palestinians of the refugee camps of Lebanon. More significantly, though, she is also a victim of her own formidable success at embracing and internalizing the role her handlers have presented to her. By the end of the story Kurtz’s inspired manipulation of Charlie’s weaknesses and strengths has culminated in a kind of identity theft, an Orwellian biography transplant. And that is only logical. The fanaticism of the terrorists can be countered only by the fanatical craftsmanship of the Israeli counterterrorism team. By the end of the story it is clear that the cost to her—and even some of her Israeli handlers—will be devastating. “Built” as a weapon in the war on terror, she ends up becoming one of its casualties.


At the time, needless to say, le Carré’s conceit was received by some readers and reviewers as a calculated provocation. Some, most innocently, took umbrage at le Carré’s departure from the familiar terrain of George Smiley’s Circus. The Little Drummer Girl was, of course, destined to be the first of a long series of le Carré works that looked beyond the cold war. Then there were the perhaps predictable accusations of anti-Semitism—more often than not predicated on what today seem like willful misreadings of a nuanced and complicated text.1

Anyone reading the novel from the present perspective will probably be hard put to see where the pro-Palestinian propaganda was supposed to have been. In le Carré’s telling, for example, all the revolutionary Marxist rhetoric spouted by Palestinians at the time is actually tragicomic ballast, ripe for jettisoning as soon as historical circumstances have changed; and he was right. The savage inventiveness of the methods used by both sides to inflict pain on each other are surely nothing new by now. And throughout the narrative lingers the suspicion that the Israeli secret warriors, whose lifetime study of their enemy often enables them to recite Palestinian arguments for self-determination as convincingly as the Palestinians themselves, know perfectly well that the ultimate solution to the conflict must involve some sort of political compromise. This seemed like heresy for many people at the time, but events have since borne it out. (As a result, The Little Drummer Girl invariably comes to mind whenever I see the latest headlines about retired Israeli intelligence officers supporting new negotiating initiatives with the Palestinians.)

Aside from politics, though, there were many critics who attacked the book on literary grounds. They concentrated on what they saw as its credibility gap—the improbability of its intricate plot or its perceived jumps in narrative logic. Surely a British left-wing radical, the doubters argued, would never have submitted to the blandishments of Israeli spies. There is a point here, to be sure, but to my own eye it is precisely the recruitment scene—a shrewdly conceived psychological duel that goes on for dozens of pages—that neatly captures the novel’s essential provocation. “He had appealed to the actress in her, to the martyr, to the adventurer; he had flattered the daughter and excited the aspirant,” writes le Carré of Kurtz.


He had granted her an early glimpse of the new family she might care to join, knowing that deep down, like most rebels, she was only looking for a better conformity. And most of all, by heaping such benefits upon her, he had made her rich: which, as Charlie herself had long preached to anyone who would hear her, was the beginning of subservience…. For that was another thing Kurtz counted on, which most intelligence professionals forget too soon: to the uninitiated, the secret world is of itself attractive. Simply by turning on its axis, it can draw the weakly anchored to its center.

Charlie, in short, is looking for a new, a more seductive, identity—and it will be bestowed on her, in equal measure, by Palestinians as well as Israelis, in the “theater” that is terrorism. “Terror is theatre,” says Khalil to her at one point, elaborating on a theme that runs through the book. “We inspire, we frighten, we awaken indignation, anger, love. We enlighten. The theatre also. The guerrilla is the great actor of the world.”

That is also, of course, why the death of innocents may actually serve the terrorist’s aim, rather than confounding it. I would argue, in fact, that it is precisely the radicalism of the book’s fundamental conceit that has enabled it to age so well. Today, among its many other levels, the book reads like a cautionary tale for post– September 11 planners. The devilishly clever mind games used by the Israelis in their interrogations of the captured Palestinian will explain a lot to readers scandalized by the treatment of suspected al-Qaeda terrorists in “ghost facilities” in extraterritorial locations like Diego García and Thailand. The story also convincingly suggests the limits of military means as an antidote to terrorism. Even JDAMs or missile-armed drones, had they existed in the early 1980s, could not have reached Khalil without acquisition of the necessary intelligence beforehand. Charlie’s handlers succeed in penetrating their deeply conspiratorial enemy by employing an innovative strategy that implies vast reserves of cultural know-how; one suspects that Kurtz’s small team probably has more fluent Arabic speakers at work, with far more first-hand experience of life among their enemy, than large sections of the present-day US intelligence establishment. But these are merely technical issues. Of much more interest is le Carré’s nuanced exploration of the moral and ethical risks that face anyone who, like Charlie, must confront the radical challenge of terrorism. At its center stands a conundrum with far-reaching implications: to defeat a terrorist you must first—at least to some extent—become one yourself.2 Like Kurtz’s team, we might win the war on terror—only to lose ourselves in the process.


Twenty years later, le Carré has returned to the theme of terrorism, and some of the ingredients of his most recent book, Absolute Friends, will be familiar to anyone who recalls Charlie’s travails. Once again the main character is British, an adherent of somewhat fitful left-wing beliefs, veteran of a childhood of deceptions, “weakly anchored,” and thus especially vulnerable to the pull of the secret world. Once again vaguely utopian longings, or the simple yearning for justice, collide with the brute demands of power in the real world. But beyond that le Carré’s new protagonist, Ted Mundy, finds himself confronting a radically changed landscape—literally as well as figuratively. One important setting shared by both novels is Munich. In Charlie’s day it was still enjoying the afterglow of Wirtschaftswunder prosperity, marred only by the odd bit of graffiti or inept urban development.

Mundy’s Munich is hardly recognizable as the same place:

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.

This is Westend, to where Mundy has fled his creditors. He had been co-owner of a not very successful English-language school for adults in Heidelberg until his partner ran away with what was left of the school’s assets. In Munich, Mundy has found sanctuary with a young Turkish immigrant woman, an erstwhile (but not very successful) prostitute, and her son:

The same week, all three make their first appearance together at the mosque. Expecting a gilded dome and a minaret, Mundy is startled to find himself in a tiled room on an upper floor of a down-at-heel house sandwiched between bridal costumiers, halal shops and stores selling used electrical goods….

“Study and God will make you wise,” the enlightened young imam advises Mundy as he leaves. “If you do not study, you will become the victim of dangerous ideologies.”

Mundy actually feels relatively comfortable among these Muslim immigrants, alienated denizens of the new Europe, for he is a European who was born in the Raj, in what would later become Pakistan, and that experience has bequeathed to him an instinctive sympathy for “ethnic diversity” and a revulsion for empire. The mosque is uneasy terrain nonetheless, and the young imam’s warning about “dangerous ideologies” underlines why. We have landed squarely in the post– September 11 era. The US invasion of Iraq is about to begin, and the struggle against terrorism has assumed dimensions that no one in The Little Drummer Girl could have dreamed of.3

That helps to explain, perhaps, why the new novel leads us in a very different direction from that of le Carré’s previous books. Where The Little Drummer Girl was taut, focused, tightly wound, with the entire story unfolding over the space of a few months, Absolute Friends is purposefully discursive, ranging across a half-century as it undertakes to tell Mundy’s biography—from his formative years as the son of an ex–British army officer who has taken a job with the newly independent Pakistan, through his unlikely transformation into a master British spy during the cold war, and on to his present incarnation as a penurious ex-husband and absentee father who dreams of starting a new family and a debt-free life and perhaps doing something to thwart Bush administration chauvinism along the way. It is this colorful, melancholy story of a life that will catch up with Mundy in the course of the novel, and ultimately render him a “victim of dangerous ideologies” in a way he could never have foreseen.

The most potent ingredient of his past is his old friend and alter ego, Sasha, a veteran of shared student radical days in 1960s Berlin, and later Mundy’s partner in an unlikely British spying operation directed against East Germany. (Ironically, both men end up on the “winning side” when the Berlin Wall collapses—but both feel more like losers, since the unification of Germany takes place under circumstances repugnant to good leftists like themselves.) When Sasha reappears, offering Mundy a final chance to make good on the radical idealism of their youth by going to work for an anti-American, anticorporate, mysteriously rich activist, the first reaction of le Carré’s antihero is, unsurprisingly, cynicism, ennui, and just a bit of exhaustion. At the moment their reunion takes place, the middle-aged Mundy has taken a job as a tour guide at one of the fairy-tale castles of the mad King Ludwig—a fitting place for le Carré’s character, who will later muse, “I am in a madhouse, but half the world is run by madmen and nobody complains.”

It is fairly clear that at least some of the “madmen” Mundy has in mind can be found in Washington, where they have been organizing and prosecuting the invasion of Iraq. For this is the era, as Mundy sees it, of American power run wild with no constraints or serious opponents; one might call it (to use an emblematic jargon word of our period) the Age of Asymmetry. In The Little Drummer Girl, the Palestinians and Israelis are equal in the intensity of their mutual hatred, and there is a sense of equilibrium in the ferocity of their struggle. But in the world of Absolute Friends, everything is dominated by the American claim to moral certainty in the wake of the September 11 attacks. (“Are you for us or against us?” the cunning CIA man asks Mundy.)

Sasha introduces Mundy to “Mr. Dmitri,” a man of indeterminate origin (“In Mundy’s imagination,” Dmitri’s accent “is sired in the Levant, trained in the Balkans, and finished off in the Bronx”) enraged by the Americans’ war in Iraq and by “the corporate octopus” that is “stifling the natural growth of humanity. It spreads tyr-anny, poverty and economic serfdom.” Dmitri wants to establish a school called “the Counter-University…as multinational and elusive as the corporations it seeks to counter, untainted by vested, religious, state or corporate interest, and financed by Dmitri’s own immense, larcenous resources.” He is the one who gives Mundy the money to reopen his Academy of Professional English in Heidelberg, with the idea that it will soon be transformed into the first Counter-University campus. Soon after Mundy gets involved with Dmitri, a CIA man named Rourke tries to recruit him as a counteragent, claiming that Dmitri is actually a former Communist whose current anti-American activities are now funded by al-Qaeda.

I hope I am not giving anything away by saying that there are no militant Islamists to be found in this book—only the shadowy ambiguities of a Machiavellian War on Terror that targets fake enemies as much as real ones. The characters indulge in plenty of polemicizing along the way, and that has resulted in the book’s condemnation, by some, as an anti-American screed (while many other readers seem to have enjoyed it for the same reason). And le Carré may well want us to read the book that way; in his acknowledgments he cites, among others, the eloquent Australian antiwar critic John Pilger, who is also mentioned in the novel. In January 2003 le Carré caused a stir by publishing an Op-Ed piece against the war in the London Times whose title nicely establishes a sense of authorial solidarity with Mundy: “The United States of America Has Gone Mad.” No question about it. Those who prefer books that are carefully groomed, upbeat, and well behaved probably won’t like this one very much.


Contrary to such condemners and well-wishers, I find it impossible to read le Carré’s book and come away feeling that its author conceived of it as a call to action. The sense of ideological exhaustion is just too overpowering, the feeling of loneliness and drift that infuse the hero just too stark. It is telling that the most impassioned speech in favor of the antiwar position comes from Dmitri, who will later be revealed as a front for the Americans (shades of the Israeli intelligence agents who ironically argue the Palestinian cause). When he recites a list of the prominent thinkers who now lead the opposition to US power (“the Canadian Naomi Klein, India’s Arundhati Roy…, your British George Monbiot and Mark Curtis, Australia’s John Pilger, America’s Noam Chomsky, the American Nobel Prize winner Joseph Stiglitz, and the Franco-American Susan George of World Social Forum at Porto Alegre”), Mundy’s inner response is: “I love them all, but I can’t remember a word any of them said.” Most of the “anti”-American arguments in this book are precisely like that. Nowhere do Sasha or Mundy come even close to formulating a coherent counterprogram, and in this sense the book reflects the diffuseness and confusion of the contemporary radical left just as much as it skewers the Bush administration.4

Meanwhile, the characters who come in for the greatest authorial mockery—Mundy’s ex-wife, Kate, and the Meph-istophelean CIA agent Rourke—are not convinced right-wingers. They are worthy of our contempt precisely because they have abandoned any pretense of conviction. Kate (who provides the novel’s few moments of genuine satire) is a paragon of New Labour who chides Mundy for his “public-school hangup about not being pushy. Well, these days we all have to be pushy because that’s what Thatcherism’s brought us to.” Rourke, the smoothly malevolent CIA man, dismisses his White House paymasters as “fucking Washington evangelists” even as he executes their most ruthless policies. At another point, apologizing to Mundy for his rough treatment at the hands of an antiterrorist squad, he jovially observes, “…Well, I guess that’s what we asked for and that’s what we have to live with these days. Overcompliance from our friends and allies, and a disregard for innocent people’s human rights.” However unlikable they were, at least Charlie’s Israelis had a cause. In Absolute Friends, there is no ideological underpinning at all. Are you with us or against us? Policy has degenerated to power politics of the most squalid sort.

Hardly anyone, I believe, will feel particularly challenged by the polemics of le Carré’s characters, polemics that struck me, more often than not, as part of a desperate effort to stave off the rising tide of disillusionment. It is intriguing that one of the most persistent literary references in Absolute Friends is Rudyard Kipling, who might seem an odd anchor for Mundy (or le Carré) to cling to. Kipling, after all, was an impassioned proponent of the White Man’s Burden, which Mundy and le Carré are certainly not. And yet, as nicely documented by one of his recent biographers,5 Kipling spent much of his later life fervently propagandizing for an ideal—the theory of Anglo-Saxon imperialism—when historical changes were already rendering his efforts moot. Now, in what he would undoubtedly view as the age of the new imperialism, le Carré is also mourning his losses, struggling to live up to old ideals and to fight the good fight, at a moment when history, in some ways, seems to be moving along, leaving the disheveled veterans of utopia, such as Mundy and Sasha, stranded in the wasteland of a strange new century. (The antiglobalizers and the lower-case socialists with whom his heroes seem to sympathize have little to say about militant Islam.)

With a bit of reflection it becomes clear that what Kipling and le Carré share is more essential than what divides them. Both chronicle their age in tales that combine high literary aspirations with popular accessibility. Both have an eerie ability to give life to a vast range of characters through vividly imagined dialogue and precise use of detail. Both are unafraid to indulge in emotion, passion, and even downright sentimentality when they see fit (to the occasional disdain of their critics and the delight of their readers).

Most importantly of all, finally, both are unmatched at tracing—at times with an almost nihilistic intensity—the complete lack of connection between the demands of grand ideological systems and the myriad, sometimes contradictory motives of individuals going about their everyday lives. Both Kipling and le Carré, at least in their fiction, are ultimately far more interested in people than in ideas. (In his fictional works, the self-professed racist Kipling created finely realized nonwhite characters.) Kim and some of Kipling’s other fictional heroes, with all their messy and deeply human reasons for doing whatever they do, would surely have understood Mundy’s hesitations when Sasha recruits him for a final mission. When Mundy finally agrees, he does so more out of personal loyalty and a quixotic sense of shared bond than from sincere political conviction. When the Americans recruit him to spy on Sasha, his inner calculation runs as follows: “What do you have to lose? Zara, Mustafa, my happiness, my debts.”

In the end, then, the value of Absolute Friends is not in some putative “moral” about American power in the post–September 11 age, but in its passion, its roughness, its quirkiness, its air of mourning, and its insight into motives. Ideologically, Mundy has come to the end of the line, even if he still doesn’t want to give up hope altogether. His unspoken response to Dmitri’s call to join the heroic cause of opposition is simply, “I believe none of it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” The threat implicit in Charlie’s story—that the war against fanaticism can lead to the death of tolerance—has somehow come true, though the point hardly comes across with the force of a moral edict. Just like Charlie, Mundy cannot emerge from his encounters with the powers-that-be unscathed—he “no longer knows which parts of him are pretending.”At least Charlie still had a hope of redemption. For Mundy, the rootless orphan, there is only the return, in death, to the place where he was born, “on a sun-baked hillside in Pakistan,” the country that had no place for him in life. As le Carré puts it in the last lines of the novel:

An intrepid journalist tracked down Mundy’s final resting place. The mist, she reported, never quite lifts, but the broken Christian masonry makes it a popular place for children to stage their mock battles.

So much for those who fight the good fight.

This Issue

August 12, 2004