Posted by: Corri van de Stege | September 2, 2007

Going to the Congo

I am totally drifting away from the original list of books in my Armchair Travellers Challenge and have just added another one that was not there at all in the first instance. 

John le Carre’s The Mission Song took me back to Africa, although only indirectly so, the main protagonists are all in England or on an unnamed island some two hours flying from Luton.  The book is as intriguing as any of Le Carre’s books, and I think I have read them all, starting with the East-West Germany divide spy stories featuring Smiley, The Spy who came in from the Cold, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Smiley’s People and all the others, the perfect spy novels, as far as I’m concerned.  The intrigue about the Wall, the undercover agents caught at the wrong side and Berlin itself, a divided city, were beautifully captured.  When I went to Berlin and saw the crossing, crumbled left-overs of the wall, and once when driving back from Hungary through Austria at the time just prior to the Wall coming down, wondering how a regime was able to keep so many people prisoner behind the borders, mentally I always used le Carre’s books as some kind of backdrop to the political shenanigans.   I am actually in the middle of a short story set in Germany about the betrayals and how it affected people afterwards, how religion at times became another traitor.  However, that is all for later.

After ‘Die Wende’, le Carre of course did not stop writing, but changed places, going to South America and then Africa, first with ‘The Constant Gardener’ and now with The Mission Song. 

Maxie, one of the conspirators, provides a damning verdict of the Congo:
The country is in stasis.  Useless government, chaps sitting around waiting for elections that may or may not happen.  And if they do happen, will likely as not leave ‘em worse of than before.  So there’s a vacuum. Right?
And then:
Congo’s been bleeding to death for five centuries…. Fucked by the Arab slavers, fucked by their fellow Africans, fucked by the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, the mineral companies, half the world’s carpet baggers, their own government in Kinshasa, and any minute now they’re gong to be fucked by the oil companies.  Time they had a break, and we’re the boys to give it to ‘em.

Only they don’t of course, they are just as corrupt as their predecessors and everyone else involved in this plot, the top-secret conference, the financiers (who are they anyway?) and the warlords as well as British government and others. 

The book is written from the point of view of Salvo, alias Brian Sinclair, full name Bruno Salvador, born in the Congo and arriving in England as a 10-year old, fatherless and motherless, but destined to become a top notch interpreter, who knows the languages of the Congo, including Swahili, as well as French and English.  The use of language is brilliant with excellent descriptions of places, part of Salvo’s attempt to discover where he is, using a very wide vocabulary that made me reach for the dictionary once or twice.  There are raftered halls, mullions across windows, gazebos and windows abutting onto grass terraces: perfect description of an unknown place creating the feeling that you are there with Salvo, trying to work out the setting. 
An ormolu clock in the billiard room is firmly set at twelve o’clock, thus not providing any clue to the hapless Salvo as to where he is.

The book is nevertheless firmly about the Congo, through Salvo’s eyes and the messages he picks up when having been whisked away by British Secret Service to this undisclosed island, under a false name, to provide interpreting services to a group of people all with their different intents on the Congo.  This is a story about corruption and one man caught up and innocently trying to avert mayhem. 

Le Carre has got the character of an interpreter to a t, what it is to switch from one language to another, translating and taking on the culture and identity of the language and person to be translated.  I liked the comments about some of the local languages being about business, basic and functional, as distinct from the more complicated languages that have nuances.  Salvo is able to assume all of these and that is what makes him the class interpreter he is. 

Go and read the book – it’s an excellent story written by an excellent storyteller!

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