Monday, August 06, 2007

King of Noir

That would be this man, John Le Carre, who defined the Cold War thriller with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and who has never let up. His last books have focused on Africa - in this case, the eastern Congo where it borders on Rwanda. The forces at work there are the same as those he found underlying the Cold War, the ones we've been calling "noir."

My friend Elizabeth Robinson gave me Le Carre's new book, The Mission Song, for my birthday last September, but I didn't have time to read it until last week when I was in Vienna, where Hapsburg imperial history has been lovingly preserved and traces of the Cold War completely erased. This is a appropriate enough, since for Le Carre postcolonial African history is an extension of both the colonial period and the Cold War overlay.

The novel is told in the first person by a professional interpreter who is called in to work at a secret summit among rival leaders of an area in the eastern Congo that has been plundered by Rwandans to the east and the Congolese capital "fatcats" in Kinshasa 2000 kilometers to the west. The point of the summit is for the rival parties to come together under a new leader and create the conditions for peaceful trade and prosperous development. The sponsor is, importantly, not the British government acting openly, but a nameless business consortium run by apparently realistic idealists who, aware of the facts on the ground, will do well by doing good - well by minerals, good by a new elder statesman come to unite.

I had trouble getting through the first 50 pages because the narrator is such a prat (the Britishism means ass, but, at least in my mind, an ass who binds with elites and looks down on regular people). He is of mixed race, cultures, and nationalities, and in part because he grew up in an interesting crossroads in Central Africa speaks maybe a dozen languages with a perfect ear. But then, as in all Le Carre novels, and in life, the trap door opens and the ride begins.

I won't say more about the plot, which has Le Carre's trademark of multiple reversals. The book is quite good at laying out the standard rules of noir, which came originally as much from Le Carre as from Hammett or Chandler or anyone else:
Rule 1: the official story is a cover story.
Rule 2: to understand anything, you have to stop hearing only what you want to hear.
Rule 3: rulers seek only money and power
Rule 4: rulers admire coercive force, believe in it, and will always use it.
Rule 5: your opposition to any of this, when it becomes effective, will put you in mortal danger.

One of the leaders being forced to the table by the syndicate spells all this out in a compact way. He is being coerced into saying who his contacts in Kinshasa are, and he replies like this:

You want to know who they are, these wise guys in Kinshasa I spoke to? Your fucking friends! . . . the fatcats [your guy] won't have anything to do with till he's built Jerusalem in Kivu! [eastern Congo] You know what they call themselves, this band of altruistic public servants when they're swilling beer and screwing whores and deciding which kind of Mercedes to buy? - the Thirty Per Cent Club. What's thirty per cent? Thirty per cent is the People's Portion that they propose to award themselves in exchange for favours they are granting to the Middle Path. It's the piece of this crappy operation that persuades arseholes like my father that they can build schools and roads and hospitals while they line their fucking pockets. What do these fatcats have to do to earn themselves the People's Portion? What they like to do best: nothing. Look the other way. Tell their troops to stay in their barracks and stop raping people for a few days.

[Now pretending to speak to the new hero-leader backed by the corporation: "No problem. . . You want to stage a couple of riots in Bukavu and Goma, take the place over ahead of the elections, kick out the Rwandans and start a little war? No problem! You want to grab Kavumu airport, play the minerals game, steal the stockpiles, take them to Europe and depress the world market with a short-sell? Do it! One small detail. We distribute the People's Portion, not you. And how we distribute it is our fucking business. You want your [guy] to be Governor of South Kivu? He has our total, selfless support. Because every fucking building contract he awards, every road he thinks he's going to build and every fucking flower he plants along the Avenue Patrice Lumumba, we take one-third. And if you shit on us, we'll throw the constitutional book at you, we'll run you out of the country in your fucking underwear. Thank you for your time.
Le Carre has always excelled at setting up the binary oppositions by which we order our world: capitalist vs. communist, freedom vs. tyranny, civilized vs. savage. But with him it's always a set up. He gets us to ask the question, are we really the opposite of our enemy? Or do we resemble each other in some ways. We aren't the same as our enemy, or our appointed "other." But aren't we closer than we think? So here the question is, isn't London (or Washington DC) more like Kinshasa than we think?

Noir Rule 6: fighting the corruption of your enemy means first fighting it in yourself.

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