The Mission Song
By John le Carré
352 pages | Little, Brown and Co | ISBN 0316016748 | US$26.99 (hardcover)
As the epigraph to his second novel set in Africa, The Mission Song, John le Carré quotes Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.” The plunder of central Africa is familiar territory for le Carré, having described the business of dumping pharmaceuticals onto poverty-stricken Kenyans in The Constant Gardener.
The novel is set mainly in Britain, where Salvo (Bruno Salvador), the 29-year-old orphan of an Irish missionary and a Congolese woman, is unhappily married to Penelope, a celebrity reporter for a leading newspaper. Born in Kivu, eastern Congo, Salvo is now a professional interpreter in minority African languages. As part of his job, he is dispatched to an island in the North Sea to attend a top-secret meeting between Western financiers and East Congolese warlords. They have lots to talk about. In Kivu is to be found the world’s largest source of coltan, the African name for the precious metal columbite-tantalite, which is needed for mobile phones and play stations. Besides coltan there is gold, uranium, diamonds, cadmium, tin, tungsten, iron, platinum, silver, and antimony. To the north in neighbouring Uganda, there is oil in Lake Albert.
The real purpose of the meeting is to incite trouble in Kivu and to build up Rwandese financial presence in eastern Congo, against all principles of national sovereignty — and to keep the Chinese at arm’s length. The dream of all eastern Congolese, as expressed by the nurse Hannah, whom he meets by chance when he is called to translate the dying words of a Rwandese in a hospital bed, is peace. But peace slips away again. One of the British mandarins tells Salvo that surely it’s better to keep the world’s dwindling resources in the hands of civilised, cultured souls than in those of backward heathen.
Le Carré has a good eye for detail. You can hear the lilting intimacies of the African voice, particularly the Congolese, whose music and song are popular in the rest of Africa. He even manages to convey the distinctive quality of Bantu languages — functional and robust, peasant tongues made for arguing and good shouting. He has a good eye for African scams, like the Kenyan mogul wangling a massive bribe by allowing an Indian contractor to cover 500 miles of new road with a paper-thin surface of tarmac guaranteed to last two rainy seasons. The Rwandan army officers haggling with a Chinese delegation over the sale of plundered Congolese minerals are also true to life. But he is too cynical about African elections. Most African voters take their elections seriously and vote responsibly, having had to queue for hours in the sun, or even wait many years, to exercise this right. They don’t vote mindlessly
A more serious flaw is the character portrayal of Salvo and Hannah. Except for odd flashes, they are little more than flat stereotypes. As a “love-child”, Salvo was sent to an orphanage for boys in southern England, where he was placed under the friendly care of Brother Michael, who belonged to the English Catholic gentry. Brother Michael, noticing his gift for languages, managed to help him qualify and train as an interpreter. Hannah is a Congolese nurse working in a London hospital who has had a good Catholic upbringing. Salvo’s African blood attracts him to Hannah who, in turn, lonely and separated from her son, Noah, responds to his affection. All of this is possible, but highly contrived. Thousands of African men and African women have migrated to the West to support family members at home, and their fidelity remains intact, and their behaviour consistent with their religious belief. I suspect that le Carré introduced this diversion to spice up the story as his publisher required. Another gratuitous element that leaves a bad taste is the homosexual tendencies of two of the priests at the mission.
Somehow, too, le Carré fails to communicate the character of the people. In Africa people live in the open; they exteriorize their feelings and emotions, both of joy and sorrow, and their ideas. They communicate continually. They have tremendous energy and vitality. Life is hard for the huge majority. They know the meaning of heroic sacrifice and suffering, of the joy of having many children. They are immensely hospitable and welcoming.
It is a pity, too, that the author ignores the tumultuous history of the Congo, except a brief allusion to Patrice Lumumba. Congo cannot be understood nor the complexity of its problems appreciated without going back in history until King Leopold, at least. With a little imagination le Carré could have included these points to give a more rounded, and more convincing, picture of Africa.
Nevertheless, on the plus side, he has highlighted the seldom-reported turmoil and exploitation of a continent whose people are often unwilling pawns in a shadowy international chess game when all they want to do is get on with their lives. When blockbuster novelists take notice, perhaps the rest of the West will, too.
Martyn Drakard is a Kenyan of British origin, a teacher for many years and now Director of the Community Outreach Programme in Strathmore University, Nairobi. He is a regular columnist on social issues for local publications.
The Mission Song