Saturday, June 18, 2011

The Mission Song - John Le Carre

The book is about Bruno Salvador (Salvo) who has an Irish father and a Congolese mother. Born in Africa and later raised in England,  having mastered most of the African languages he serves as an interpreter. He is married to Penelope, a marriage which collapses as he meets Hannah. He is recruited on a secret mission for Britain as an interpreter in a negotiation of a coup in Congo involving Congolese tribes and an unnamed Syndicate with significant British interests. Following his return from the mission, he tries his best to meet concerned parties to avert the coup but fails on every attempt. Finally, he is captured and is awaiting deportment and his reunion with Hannah who has already been deported. A fantastic novel -  nice to see John Le Carre still going strong.

Remembering his father:

If there is a divine purpose to your conception, son, he confided to me on his deathbed, resorting to his lovely Irish brogue lest his fellow priests should hear him through the floorboards, it is to found in the stinking prison hut and at a whipping post. The thought that I might die without knowing the consolation of a woman's body was the one torture I could not bear.

A village headman's daughter, son, my father whispered through his tears, when I pressed him for details that might assist me in forming a mental picture of her to sustain me in my later years. I had taken shelter under his roof. She cooked our food and brought me the water to wash with. It was the generosity of her that overwhelmed me. He had eschewed the pulpit by then, and had no appetite for verbal pyrotechnics. Nevertheless, the memory rekindled the Irishman's smouldering rhetorical fires: As tall as you'll be one day son! As beautiful as all creation! How in God's name can they tell me you were born in sin? You were born in love, my son! There is no sin but hate!

Thereafter the half-caste bastard who was Salvo trailed after him in the care of servants chosen for their age and ugliness, first in the guise of offspring of a deceased uncle, later as acolyte and server, until that fateful night of my tenth birthday when, conscious of his mortality as my ripening, he poured out his very human heart to me as described above, which I regarded and still do, as the greatest compliment a father can pay to his accidental son.

The plight of Africa narrated on the bedside of a dying African man whom Salvo is translating since he volunteers at hospitals as an interpreter:

And he was still there the next evening, arms outstretched and knuckles jammed against the granite wall when, responding to an urgent request from the North London District Hospital, I presented myself at 7:45 p.m at the tropical diseases ward, for the purpose of interpreting a dying African man of unidentifiable age who is refusing to speak a word of any known language except his native-born Kinyarwanda.
On one side of it crouches Salvo, on the other side with only a pair of dying man's knees between us, this degree nurse. And this degree nurse whom I deduce to be of Central African origin has knowledge and responsibilities that exceed most doctors', ... with the unlikely first name of HANNAH on her left bosom, and a gold cross displayed on her throat ...
His name, he informs us after prolonged thought, is Jean-Pierre. And for good measure adds, with as much truculence as he can muster in his reduced circumstances, that he is a Tutsi and proud of it. "Ask him where he lives, please", she says  ... she is addressing me as a fellow African in Swahili. As if that wasn't enough she is speaking in the accents of a woman of the Eastern Congo! "Hannah", I go on, speaking English, perhaps in order to relieve the pressure slightly. "For goodness sake. Who are you? Where do you come from?"
To which, without the smallest hesitation, she declared her nationhood to me: "I am from the region of Goma in Northern Kivu, by tribe a Nande," she murmurs. "And this poor Rwandan man is the enemy of my people."
And I will tell you as a matter of unadorned truth that her half-drawn breath, the widening of her eyes, her urgent appeal for my understanding as she says this, declared to me in a single moment the plight of her beloved Congo as she perceives it: the emaciated corpses of her relatives and loved ones, the unsown fields and dead cattle and burned-out townships that had been her home, until the Rwandans swarmed across the border and, by appointing the Eastern Congo the battlefield for their civil war, heaped unspeakable horrors on a land already dying of neglect.
At first the invaders only wanted to hunt down the genocidaires who had hand-killed a million of their citizens in a hundred days. But what began as hot pursuit quickly became a free-for-all for Kivu's mineral resources , with the result that a country on the brink of anarchy went totally over the edge, which is what I strove and struggled to explain to Penelope, who as a conscientious British corporate journalist preferred her information to be the same as everybody else's. Darling, as I said, I know you're busy. I know your paper likes to stick within family guidelines. But please, on my knees, just this once, print something, anything, to tell the world what's happening to the Eastern Congo. Four million dead, I told her. Just in the last five years. People are calling it Africa's first world war, and you're not calling it anything. It's not a bang-bang war. It's not bullets and pangas and hand grenades that are doing the killing. It's cholera, malaria, diarrhoea, and good old-fashioned starvation, and most of the dead are less that five years old. And they're still dying now, as we speak, in their thousands, every month. So there must be a story in there somewhere, surely. And there was. On page twenty-nine, next to the quick crossword.
And where had I got this information from? Lying in bed in the small hours, waiting for her to come home. Listening to the World Service of the BBC and remote African radio stations while she met her late-night deadlines. Sitting alone in Internet cafes while she took her sources out to dinner. From African journals purchased on the sly. Standing at the back of outdoor rallies, clad in a bulky anorak and bobble cap while she attended a refresher course on whatever it was she needed to refresh.
Before us lies a dying Rwandan man who call himself Jean-Pierre. At his bedside sits a young Congolese woman called Hannah who has been brought to regard Jean-Pierre and those like him as the sole perpetrators of her country's misery. Yet does she turn her back on him? She does not. She calls him this poor Rwandan man and holds his hand.
Then I notice that not only is she holding our patient's hand but she's holding mine too. Yet there they are, my calf-brown half-Congolese hand and Hannah's authentic all-black version with its pinky-white palm, both of them entwined on an enemy Rwandan's bed. And it's not about sex - how can it be, with Jean-Pierre dying between us? it's about discovered kinship and consoling each other while we're giving our all to our shared patient. It's because she is deeply moved, and so am I. She is moved by the poor dying man, even though she sees such men all day and every day of her week. She is moved that we are caring for our perceived enemy and loving him according to the Gospel she's been brought up to, as I can tell by the gold cross. She is moved by my voice. Each time I interpret from Swahili to Kinyarwanda and back again, she lowers her eyes as in prayer. She is moved because, as I am trying to tell her with my eyes is only she will listen, we are the people we have been looking for all our lives.

The thoughts of Salvo as he leaves his wife:

Why does a newly anointed adulterer, who hours earlier has abandoned himself body, soul and origins to another woman for the first time in his five-year marriage, feel an irresistible urge to put his deceived wife on a pedestal? Is he trying to re-create the image of her that he has defiled? Is he re-creating an image of himself before he fell? Was my ever-present Catholic guilt catching up with me in the midst of my euphoria? Was praising Penelope to the skies the nearest I could get to praising Hannah without blowing my cover?
Pulling off the hated shoes, I was drawn to a blotched engraving of Tintagel Castle that for five years had hung unremarked in the gloomiest recess. Penelope's sister had given it to us for a wedding present. The sisters hated each other. Neither had any connection with Tintagel. They had never been there, didn't want to go. Some gifts say it all.
From the desk in the bay window I extracted a wax-sealed envelope marked BRUNO'S COPY containing the pre-nuptial agreement drafted by Penelope's far-sighted father to cover precisely this moment. I had always recognized that he had a more realistic view of our marriage than I did. As solemnly as I was laying a wreath at the Cenotaph, I set the twice-signed agreement on Penelope's pillow, removed the wedding ring from the third finger of my left hand and positioned it plumb centre. With this ring I thee unwed. If I felt anything, it was neither bitterness not anger but completion. An awakening that had begun long before the little gentleman's outburst in the trattoria had reached its only possible conclusion. I had married Penelope for the person she didn't want to be: a fearless champion of our great British press, my faithful and enduring lover forsaking all others, my lifestyle instructor and the mother of my future children and, in my lowest moments, my own white mother-substitute. Penelope for her part had married the exotic in me, only to discover the conformist, which must have been a major disappointment to her. In that regard she had my heartfelt sympathy. I left no note.
Snapping my Roller-Case shut and refusing to take a last look round, I set course down the passage towards the front door and freedom. As I did so I heard the lock turning without its usual impediment, and a pair of lightweight feet enter the hall. My immediate reaction was fear. Not of Penelope personally, because that was over. Fear of having to put into words what I had already put into action. Fear of delay, of loss of impetus, of precious time wasted in argument. Fear that Penelope's fling with Thorne had come to grief and she would be returning home in search of consolation, instead of which she was going to suffer another humiliating rejection, and from a quarter she regarded as incapable of resistance: me.

When the scales fall from the eyes of Salvo regarding Mwanganza who he regards as their savior:

In the same grim light of reality I take a second look at the Mwanganza. Is his halo blow-dried? Have they shoved a poker down his back? Is he dead already, and strapped into his saddle like El Cid? Hannah saw him in the rosy haze of her idealism, but now I am able to look at him clearly, the sad arc of his life is written all over his crunched-up face. Our Enlightener is a failed state of one. He has been brave - look at his record. He has been clever, diligent, loyal and resourceful throughout his life. He has done everything right, but the crown has always gone to the man next to him or the man below him. And that was because he wasn't ruthless enough, or corrupt enough, or two-faced enough. Well, now he will be. He will play their game, a thing he swore he'd never do. And the crown is within his grasp, except it isn't. Because if he ever gets to wear it, it will belong to the people he has sold himself to on the way up. Any dream he has is mortgaged ten times over. And that includes the dream that once he comes to power, he won't have to pay his debts.

The change in stature of mercenaries captured after a failed coup:

Men in shackles change size. Benny has shrunk. Anton is bulky. Spider has grown nine inches since he has passed out the plates in his improvised chef's hat. But the star of the show is neither the UN's Pakistani Commandant in his blue helmet, nor the colonel of the Congolese army with his swagger cane, but our skipper Maxie in fawn slacks with no belt and a sweat-soaked shirt minus one sleeve. The slacks are all that is left of the go-anywhere khaki suit last seen when he was pressing the envelope containing the seven thousand dollars' fee that, in the gallantry of his heart, he prised out of the Syndicate. His face deprived of Bogey's enlarging spectacles, lacks the charisma that had cast its spell over me, but in other respects has grown into the part, being formed in an expression of gritty endurance that refuses to acknowledge defeat, no matter how many days it spends at the whipping post. The bulletproof hands are manacled in front of him and folded over one another like a dog's paws. He has one desert boot on, and one bare foot to match the bare shoulder. But it isn't the missing boot that is slowing him down, its another set of shackles, short ones for a man his height, and by the look of them too tight. He is staring straight at me and to judge by his vituperative jaw action he is telling me to fuck myself, until it dawns on me that must be telling this to the person filming him, not me personally.
On Maxie's uneven heels come Anton and Benny, chained to one another and their skipper. Anton has some bruising on the left side of his face which I suspect has been caused by impertinence. The reason Benny looks smaller that actual size is that his chains hunch him downward in a mincing shuffle. His grey ponytail has been cropped to stubble by a single sweep of someone's panga, giving the impression that they have got him ready for the guillotine. After Benny comes Spider, improviser of cattle prods and my fellow sound-thief, chained but upright. He has been allowed to keep his cap, which gives him a certain pertness. Being the acrobat that he is, he doesn't have the same problem as his short-stepping mates. Together, the four of them resemble an incompetent conga-party, jerking back and forth to a beat they can't get the hang of.
After the white men come the footballers, some twenty of them in a receding line of miserable black shadows: veterans, no mevericks, best fighters in the world. But when I search nervously for a Dieudonne or Franco, on the off-chance that somehow, in the mayhem of the failed operation, they have been caught up in the main affray, I'm relieved to see neither the hulk of the crippled old warrior nor the spectre of the haggard Banyamulenge leader among the prisoners.

Extracted from a letter written by Haj to Salvo:

Question: If the State was a person, what would you do it? Answer: We would kill him. We have Black Awareness but every street hawker in town is selling skin-lightener guaranteed to give you cancer. Young Congolese talk of Europe as the promised land. So be aware: if you make it here, you're going to look like a rejected zebra. The elections won't deliver solutions but they're ours. We have a constitution. We have kids with polio and kids with the plague who are feeling richer by three million dirty dollars. One day, we may even have a future.

Salvo's last farewell to Britain as he awaits his being deported to Congo:

We are on the coast here too, Noah. Each morning my heart rises with the morning sun. Each evening it sinks. But if I bring my chair to the window, and there's a good moon shining, I can just make out a sliver of sea mile beyond the wire. And that's where their England ends and my Africa begins.

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