In the run-up to Christmas 2000 there was chaos in cyberspace as anxious parents searched websites in the hope of purchasing PlayStation 2. Amazon, ebay and K-mart crashed under the pressure of traffic. Sony blamed manufacturing delays. John le Carré's The Mission Song claims that the true reason for the delays lay in massacres in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which interrupted supplies of coltan, a vital component in electronic goods and mobile phones: 80 per cent of known reserves of coltan are in the Congo.
The connection between Western consumption and African death lies at the heart of this novel. Two Western companies plot a coup in the Congo. They plan to engineer a civil war, fermenting conflict between ethnic groups then installing a puppet regime to give them a monopoly over gold, uranium, diamond and coltan mines. The US company, aided by the CIA, plots Rwanda's annexation of Eastern Congo. It is headed by neo-conservatives fearful of China's huge appetite for mineral resources and growing influence over the Congolese government.
The rival British outfit - "The Syndicate" - plans to get in first. Lord Brinkley, art connoisseur, socialite and ex-New Labour minister, is one of its leading financiers. Others include Andersen, "rectitude personified... the oak of England", a tenor in the Sevenoaks Choral Society who lives very comfortably with his wife, daughters and spaniels; and Maxie, an aristocratic eccentric dressed in "time-yellowed Oxford University rowing sweater... and old plimsolls without socks".
They talk much about bringing freedom and democracy to the Congo, but are in truth missionaries of other Western values, their intention being to gain exclusive access to mineral resources. The Syndicate fly to a secret rendezvous. There, with great pomp, leaders of warring East Congolese factions are flown to negotiate a settlement which would allow maximum exploitation of Congo's riches. As Maxie puts it, explaining the plotters' intention, "Congo's been bleeding 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... Time they had a break, and we're the boys to give it to 'em."
The narrator, Bruno Salvador ("Salvo"), is employed by The Syndicate as interpreter. Son of a Roman Catholic Irish missionary and a Congolese village woman, Salvo is brought up in a Catholic orphanage the Congo, then sent to a Catholic boarding school in Sussex. His extraordinary facility with languages leads him to London's SOAS and government jobs dealing with trade and diplomacy in Africa and refugees in London. He is eventually recruited by the British intelligence service.
Salvo's wife, Penelope, is a white journalist from a wealthy family who has married him to defy her parents. But she abandons Salvo for a newspaper executive who can promote her career. Salvo is initially naïve, believing in The Syndicate's talk about democracy and orderly development, but comes to understand the hypocrisy of the plotters and the corrupt nature of the African leadership.
He involves his new lover in a bid to expose the planned coup. Hannah is a Congolese nurse in London, a woman whose angelic nature, generosity and compassion are, to Salvo, revelations of the redeeming aspects of the Congolese character. In seeking Hannah's help he places her life in danger and at this point the novel becomes a tender love story.
Le Carré's is a fierce condemnation of the ways that Africans are exploited by Western commercial interests; nothing has changed since the greed for ivory revealed in Conrad's Heart of Darkness. This is also a novel deeply sympathetic to Salvo and other black people in England, exposing the many ways in which they suffer taunts, stereotyping and institutional racism. While it may lack the sophistication and ambition of Conrad's work, it is a thriller with the potential to educate readers not otherwise interested in global politics.
David Dabydeen's novels include 'A Harlot's Progress' (Vintage)