CHRONICLES OF A PATRIOT

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By The Telegraph Online in Salvo
  • Published 29.09.06
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The world of covert intelligence is John le Carré’s natural terrain. He returns to it in his latest novel through a different route and in a different manner. This is the only time in 20 novels that le Carré adopts the first person singular as the narrative voice. The narrator, Bruno Salvador, half-Congo and half-Irish, is an interpreter who specializes in African languages and is a master of the obscure dialects. He is thus valued by the British secret service to which he is loyal, although he operates at its fringes. The novel has none of the moral ambiguities, which were the hallmarks of le Carré’s depiction of the world of espionage in his earlier novels. The battle is no longer between “half-angels versus half-devils” — to recall the words of Connie Sachs in Smiley’s People. The devils are clearly identified and they are many in number. Bruno Salvador or Salvo is definitely on the side of angels who are not destined to win.

Salvo is asked by his service to undertake a job on a totally deniable basis. An unnamed multinational syndicate is meeting in an obscure North Sea island to plan a coup in Eastern Congo. Representatives of the three principal political players are present. The aim is to bring peace and democracy in the region where human beings are dying like flies of violence, disease and starvation. One of the leaders of the syndicate explains to Salvo: “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 carpetbaggers, their own government in Kinshasa, and any minute now they’re going to be fucked by the oil companies.” The syndicate aims to give Congo “a break” by “delivering democracy at the end of a gun barrel”. The syndicate’s chosen political messiah is a political regime, which calls it The Middle Path.

The middle part of the novel, somewhat slow by le Carré’s standards, is a description of the meeting on the island where Salvo acts not only as interpreter but also as sound thief. He listens into private conversation taking place in bugged rooms. He becomes wise to sordid deals and the ways of the syndicate whose members are not averse to using torture to secure consent and their own ends. Salvo is witness to plans to sell his own country down the tube.

Salvo’s conscience is Hannah, a Congolese nurse in London. This is a love story that develops fast because of Hannah’s loneliness and Salvo’s growing dissatisfaction with Penelope, his upper class English wife who married him to shock and defy her parents. Salvo decides to expose the plans for the coup, and he has with him the purloined tapes of the meeting as evidence.

He runs first to a peer of the realm whose heart bleeds for Africa and who is a sponsor of the syndicate. He denies everything, as does Salvo’s boss in the service. The press wants to check the facts. But this will take time while the coup, which Salvo wants to foil, is only a few days away. The coup is aborted but by this time Salvo is on the run, and the thugs of the syndicate have kidnapped Hannah. The last development closes Salvo’s options. He has to play Sir Galahad to save Hannah. The Establishment takes its revenge on the squealer. Salvo is forced into Camp Mary, a camp for illegal immigrants prone to violence. It is from Camp Mary that he writes The Mission Song.

This is the first time that le Carré engages with issues like race, ethnic identity and imperialist oppression and exploitation. The subject being Congo, it is inevitable that The Heart of Darkness haunts him and the text. Salvo is a zebra, being the bastard son of an Irish Catholic and a Congolese village woman. It is easy for the Establishment to make him a victim and a prisoner. The ambience is the fear that followed the July bombings of 2005, and thus it is easy to put away a non-white. Salvo, despite his love for Britain, chose to follow where his heart beckoned. So has le Carré.