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The Swan Song of the Literary Missionary: Review of John le Carre’s The Mission Song

While not the best of John le Carré’s novels, The Mission Song is certainly far ahead of his previous symbolic disaster, Absolute Friends, and once again proves that he is the master of the post-Cold War political thriller and factually way ahead of the pack.

Shadow of the Zebra-crossing

The story is narrated by one Bruno Salvador, quite literally the bastard child of imperialism and civil war. Salvador’s father –predictably for le Carré – was an Irish Catholic missionary who got involved with a Congolese women, the daughter of a village big man, during the civil war there in the idealist old days of Patrice Lumumba.

‘Salvo’ (his militaristic nickname) is white with African features, both devoutly British – has great faith in what England can and should do in the world – while pinning for Africa it in his heart of hearts. As a consequence, Salvador has conflicting loyalties. His fake marriage is an example of this, ritually bedding his two-timing Tabloid journalist wife Penelope, who only married him to get on her stuck-up parents’ nerves. His language skills (again predictably), though, pit him on a collision course with the British imperial heritage that has yet to be buried in the past.

He’s a high profile interpreter for big time corporations but also does top secret translation work for British intelligence nabbing arms dealers and terrorists in the new era. On one of his overt jobs he bumps into a fellow (if full-blooded) Congolese women, nurse Hannah – he’s called in to interpret for a dying patient, a Congolese warlord who massacred Hannah’s people. Her commitment to preserving life and healing old wounds steady’s her through the ordeal, which impresses him all the more. You can imagine what they get up to on her lunch break!

Then he gets a call, before second helpings, to show up for work. He’s whisked away – after agreeing to the job – to an unnamed island in the North Sea where he has to interpret for a bunch of mysterious characters – businessmen, mercenaries, politicians, lawyers, African warlords – planning a coup meant to save the Congo from itself, at the paltry price of handing over all its mineral rights to the consortium funding the operation. At the centre of the plot is the prospective future president, a former Lumumba loyalist know as the Mwangaza – the ‘enlightened one’ (Hannah filled Salvo in on him) – and a surprisingly principled Congolese warlord (interestingly) named Haj.

It is Haj who christens Salvo the ‘Zebra’ on account of his African features and simultaneous white skin, and Haj also that inspires him through example, since Haj tries  to rat out the meeting to a rival American syndicate and save the Congo yet more hardships.

Stickler for research that he is, what le Carré has done here is independently recreate Dietrich Jung ‘statist’ thesis, spelled out  in his brilliant book, Shadow Globalization, Ethnic Conflicts and New Wars: A Political Economy of Intra-State War, (2003). As a German, Weberian residing in Denmark  Jung argues and documents how the civil wars in the ‘Zones of Turmoil’ of the South fund themselves through trading in slaves, drugs, diamonds and other raw materials with the ‘Zones of Peace’ up North. Hence, globalization has a dark, unseen side that brings peace and prosperity to one corner of the globe and misery and strife to another.

In the process, the already wobbly nation-state order in the South – same goes for Afghanistan – is further weakened, from within and without. So much for the new neo-conservative mission to rescue and rebuild ‘failed states.’ (Did I mention that the rival syndicate Haj goes to is peopled by CEOs who are former White House neo-cons!)

The lawyer’s botanical garden

This is an older problem for Africa specifically than we suspect, as le Carré exemplifies by the contrasting duo of Haj (means pilgrimage in Arabic) and Felix Tabizi, a Lebanese middleman and Hamas-associate who ‘converted’ to Christianity. I suppose what le Carré is trying to say here is that Africa is a continent that has been much abused by the Arabs – something mentioned in the novel – under the guise of Islam, whilst African Muslims themselves have been some of the most loyal to the religion’s cause. Tabizi himself is nicknamed Tabby, a Western sounding name, intercepts Haj and takes great pleasure in torturing him afterwards and forcing him to sign the agreement, with the enthusiastic help of British intelligence.

Le Carré, moreover, tackles the much ignored legal dimension to the failed states phenomenon, through the character of Monsieur Jasper, the lawyer hired to draw up the contract the assembled warlords will quite literally sign with the European consortium. The lawyer describes the peculiar contract as ‘hypothetical’ (only coming into effect if certain unmentioned events take place under the instigation of certain unnamed parties) and ‘agricultural’. That is, people are referred to as ‘cows’, property to be bought and sold, with the resulting profits being divided unevenly between the consortium and the Mwangaza (indirectly referred to as the ‘agriculturalist’)!

This may sound ridiculous to us but believe you me, it isn’t in the slightest. Anthony Anghie, a Sri Lankan legal scholar in the States, has been busily cataloguing the imperialist history of international (i.e. European) law, since the perennial concern of the expanding colonial powers was to insure that the rights of all Europeans were guaranteed in the conquered domains.[i] There’s also an agricultural element to international law many of us don’t know about, namely, that the chief legal tinkerer of decolonization – American jurist Roscoe Pound (1870–1964), who drew up the laws of the Mandate System under the League of Nations[ii] – didn’t have a degree in law to begin with. He was actually a botanist[iii] by education!

My suspicion is that, as a consequence, he thought of history in biological developmental terms as following a set plan (genetic code/blueprint), and thus that the West was the natural end stat of human history and the Africans had to be prepared for this eventuality. You may not know this but much of the terminology of development we have comes from sociology, specifically the French functionalism of Comte and Durkheim, and they got their organic analogy of society (like a body, with parts that serve certain harmonious specialised ‘functions’) from botany and cell biology too.[iv]

This ossified, teleological mentality contributed to the very undoing of the Mandate System’s noble intentions because the legalists in charge didn’t realise just how different these colonised peoples were from their European contemporaries. Pound wanted to help these peoples out by preparing them for independence, both politically and ‘economically’, by focusing on these countries comparative advantage in raw materials and mineral wealth. As Anghie explains:

The Mandate System… proceeded to establish an intricate and far-reaching network of economic relationships that connected native labor in a mandate territory to a much broader network of economic activities which extended from the native’s village to the territory as a whole, to the metropolis and finally, to the international economy.[v]

Thus were the foundations of dependency laid, but in a far more chaotic and corrosive way than in other quarters of the Third World. Here the state was circumvented and the nation atomised n a legally binding way, with tribes and armed groups taking the pace of market agents and governments. Jung’s shadow globalization is just the latest phase of this and le Carré, in his intuitive genius has stitched together these disparate lines of analysis in graphic and emotionally harrowing form.

The prince of tidal waves

There are problems, mind you. It’s not as witty as it should be and involves a lot of recycling. One mainstay of le Carré novels are bad meals. In Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy George Smiley is forced to ensure a meal of undercooked sausage and overcooked tomato, and here you have Salvo forced to eat ‘recycled’ Cannelloni and wash it down with ‘weapons-grade’ Chianti. ‘The Mikado’ pops up again too, from Absolute Friends, that ancient Phoenician text about the Noble Lie; hence the role of the media in perpetuating governmental rationalizations of inhumane policies. There’s the comparison of the secret service to the priesthood, that you got in A Perfect Spy. One of the Congolese warlords is a huge man with a scare across his face and who walks with a limp – the classic crippled giant motif, which we get in Tinker Tailor, The Russia House, Our Game, Absolute Friends, Call for the Dead, etc. etc. etc. There’s also the matter of ‘dolphins’, a term batted around in many of his novels but a le Carré code I haven’t quite cracked, yet!

Trouble is, told from the narrator’s rather humourless perspective, it sounds a bit forced and gets repeated over and over again in the novel. First person narratives are not le Carré strong suit, ironic for such a subjective, psychological writer, someone who’s been compared to Joseph Conrad.[vi] His portrayal of the cloistered life of British suburbia is also a bit tacky and overly familiar. I’m also afraid he’s running out of ideas and literary techniques. Still, I shouldn’t grumble. This novel, unlike most of his others, actually has a happy ending, of sorts. Salvo tries to convince his superiors to abort the operation or else he’ll leak the story – he stole his translation tapes and notes – to no avail and in the process gets imprisoned in a British equivalent of Guantanomo, designed for illegal aliens, after being humiliatingly stripped of his British passport.

In the meantime Haj takes steps when back in the Congo to capture the would-be coup plotters. The uplifting part is that Salvo’ll eventually be sent ‘back’ to Africa, as a Congoleeze citizen, to meet up with the equally deported Hannah, and their future son Noah, to whom Salvo is addressing his story. That’s where le Carré really belongs, in Africa. You could tell he liked it in The Constant Gardener and after this novel, I’m pretty sure it’ll like him. After all, Joseph Conrad did his best work there!

[i] Antony Anghie, “The Evolution of International Law: Colonial and Postcolonial Realities”, Third World Quarterly, Vol. 27, No. 5, (2006), pp. 739 – 753.

[ii] Tony Anghie, “Globalization and its Discontents: International Institutions and the Colonial Origins of Law and Development”, International Law and Politics, Vol. 32, (2005), pp. 1-24, http://www1.law.nyu.edu/journals/jilp/issues/32/pdf/32d.pdf.

[iii] The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, Sixth Edition Copyright© 2004, http://www.questia.com/library/encyclopedia/pound_roscoe.jsp.

[iv] B. Smith, Understanding Third World Politics (Indiana University Press, 1996), Chapter 2.

[v] Anghie, “Globalization and its Discontents”, pp. 19-20.

[vi] The great Sudanese writer Tayeb Saleh, author of Season of Migration to the North, made this comparison during a lecture aptly titled “Intellectuals Between East and West: A Personal Narrative”, delivered at the American University in Cairo on 26th of February 2002.

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