Unreasonable Behaviour by Don McCullin (2015)

‘I needed to be at home. I needed the peace of my own country, England. Yet when I go home and sleep in my own bed, I soon become restless. I am not shaped for a house. I grew up in harsh surroundings. I have slept under tables in battles for days on end. There is something about this that unfits you for sleeping in beds for the rest of your life. My wars, the way I’ve lived, is like an uncurable disease. It is like the promise of a tremendous high and the certainty of a bad dream. It is something I both fear and love, but it’s something I can’t do without.’ (p.226)

Don McCullin is one of the most famous war photographers of the 20th century. He first published his autobiography (co-written with Lewis Chester) in 1990. This is the new, updated edition, published in 2015, as McCullin turned 80.

Having just read Dispatches, the stoned, stream-of-consciousness prose poetry of Michael Herr’s classic account of his time covering Vietnam War, the detached, lucid prose of this book initially seemed a bit flat. But it perfectly suits the laconic, understated attitude McCullin brings to the varied and intense subject matter – whether it’s massacres in Africa or meeting the Beatles or the unlikely friendship he once struck up with Earl Montgomery.

Trips to war zones are covered in a few pages, insights dealt with in one or two pithy sentences. The battle of Khe Sanh in Vietnam takes up 60 pages of Herr’s book but gets just two paragraphs here – but it feels enough. There’s little fat, very little to come between you and the many highlights of McCullin’s extraordinarily long and colourful life. Which makes this a hugely enjoyable and absorbing book.

(By his own account McCullin suffers from severe dyslexia – as a result he didn’t passed any exams, has never liked reading and so, presumably, a great deal of credit for shaping this consistently spare, flat but very focused prose must go to the book’s co-author, Lewis Chester.)

Here’s an example, almost at random, of the book’s clipped, spare prose which is, nonetheless, gripping because it focuses so precisely on the relevant information and detail of the extreme events it describes. It’s January 1968 and McCullin is in Vietnam covering the Tet Offensive.

Under a heavy overcast sky, I joined the convoy of the Fifth Marine Commando as it started rolling up to Hue. It ploughed through heavy mud and rain, past houses collapsed and pitted by artillery, and columns of fleeing refugees. It was very cold. (p.116)

The narrative moves fast from one carefully selected high point to the next, focusing in on moments of insight and awareness. Cameos of war. Snapshots in time. Photos in prose.

Beginnings

Born into a working class household in Finsbury Park, North London, McCullin left school at 15 without any qualifications before doing his National Service, which included postings to: Suez, Kenya during the Mau Mau uprising, and Cyprus during the Enosis conflict. It was, as he puts it, ‘an extended Cook’s tour of the end of Empire.’ (p.45) His dad was ill, his mother struggled to manage three small kids, they lived in real squalor and poverty, and he grew up with a rough bunch of post-war lads, lots of fights outside north London dancehalls in the Teddy Boy 1950s.

But, as he explains, it was photographs of the local gang – the Guv’nors – at the time a local murder had hit the deadlines, that first got him noticed, that got him introduced to Fleet Street picture editors and – voom! – his career took off. Within a few pages he has begun to be given photo assignments, and then starts winning photography prizes, which bring better assignments, more pay, more freedom.

Wars

He makes it clear that he did plenty of other jobs – photo reportage at a nudists camp, countryside gigs, snapping the Beatles and so on – but it was the conflict zones which really attracted him.

  • Berlin 1961 as the Wall was going up – East German soldiers looking back, West Berlin, Germany, August 1961
  • Cyprus 1964 – photographs of a Turkish village where Greek terrorists had murdered inhabitants. He makes the interesting point that Mediterranean people want a public display of grief and so encouraged him to take photos.
  • Congo 1964 – a Boy’s Own account of how he smuggled himself into a team of mercenaries who flew into the chaos after the assassination of Patrick Lumumba, encountering CIA agents and then accompanying the mercenaries on a ‘mission’ to rescue 50 or so nuns and missionaries who had been kidnapped by brutal black militias, known as the Simbas, who raped and dismembered some of the nuns. He sees a lot of young black men being lined up alongside the river to be beaten, tortured and executed by the local warlord.
  • Vietnam 1965 – There was something specially glamorous about Vietnam and it attracted a huge number of correspondents and photographers: he namechecks Larry Burrows and Sean Flynn, the latter a big presence in Michael Herr’s classic account Dispatches, both of whom were eventually reported missing presumed dead. Vietnam was ‘black humour and farce’ and ‘waste on a mega scale’ (p.95)
  • Bihar, India during the famine of 1965 – he contrasts the monstrous amount of food and all other resources being wasted by the Yanks in Vietnam, with the absolute poverty and starvation in India.
  • Israel in the Six Day War – where he accompanied the first platoon into Arab Jerusalem, soldiers being potted by snipers to the right and left, before the city was captured and he snapped singing soldiers kissing the Wailing Wall.
  • Vietnam – the Battle for Hue, 1968. He was there for eleven days and it comes over as one of the most intense experiences from a life full of intense experiences. He is appalled at the waste. Hue, produced two of his most famous images –
  • Biafra – McCullin went back three years in a row and was initially supportive of the Biafrans, who had seceded from Nigeria because they were scared of their increasing bad treatment by the Nigerian state. But the Nigerian government (secretly supported by the British government) fought to defeat the Biafran army and reincorporate the province into the country. (It’s interesting to compare McCullin’s account with the long chapter about the same war in Frederick Forsyth’s autobiography, The Outsider.)
  • Cambodia 1970, where McCullin was wounded by mortar shrapnel from the Khmer Rouge.
  • Jordan 1970 where fighting broke out in the capital Amman between Jordanian troops and Palestinians.
  • With legendary travel writer Norman Lewis in Brazil, McCullin absorbed Lewis’s dislike of American Christian missionaries who appeared to use highly coercive tactics to round up native tribes and force them into their re-education compounds.
  • East Pakistan 1971 for the immense suffering caused by the breakaway of East Pakistan, eventually to be reborn as Bangladesh.
  • Belfast 1971 where he is blinded by CS gas and finds it uncomfortable being caught between the three sides, Catholic, Protestant and Army, and how he missed Bloody Sunday (30 January 1972).
  • Uganda – where he is imprisoned along with other journos in Idi Amin’s notorious Makindye prison and really thinks, for a bad few hours, that he’s going to be tortured and executed.
  • Vietnam summer 1972 – By this time, with its government negotiating for American withdrawal, the wider public had lost a lot of interest in the war. The number of Americans in country had hugely decreased since 1968, and the peace negotiations were well under way and yet – McCullin discovered that he fighting was more intense and destructive than ever.
  • Cambodia summer 1972 – fear of falling into the hands of the Khmer Rouge.
  • Israel 1973 the Yom Kippur War in which Sunday Times reporter and friend Nick Tomalin is killed.
  • The new editor of the Sunday Times magazine, Hunter Davies, is more interested in domestic stories. Among 18 months of domestic features, Don does one on Hadrian’s Wall. And a piece about racist hoodlums in Marseilles with Bruce Chatwin.
  • He hooks up again with the older travel writer Norman Lewis, who is a kind of father figure to him, to report on the plight of native tribes in South America being rounded and up and forcibly converted by American missionaries.
  • Spring 1975 – back to Cambodia for the final weeks before the Khmer Rouge take Phnom Penh. It is in transit in Saigon that McCullin learns his name is on a government blacklist and he is prevented from entering Vietnam and locked up by police in the airport until he can blag a seat on the flight organised by Daily Mail editor David English taking Vietnamese war orphans to England.
  • Beirut 1975 – McCullin had visited Beirut in the 1960s when it was a safe playground for the international rich, but in 1975 long-simmering resentments burst into a complex, violent and bitter civil war. At great risk McCullin photographs a massacre carried out by the right-wing Christian Falange militia.
  • 1975 – among the Palestinian Liberation organisation, McCullin meets Yasser Arafat and other leaders, and gives his take on the Arab-Israeli struggle, bringing out the terrorist tactics of the Jewish side – the well-known Irgun and Stern gang – and Jewish massacres of Palestinians back in the founding year of 1948.
  • 1977 – West Germany, to report on old Nazis, Hitler’s bodyguard, unrepentant SS killers.
  • Iran autumn 1978 to cover a huge earthquake.
  • Iran 1979 after the Islamic Revolution.
  • Spring 1980 with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan.
  • Spring 1982 – El Salvador. Covering a firefight in a remote town between soldiers and left-wing guerrillas he falls off a roof, breaking his arm in five places. He makes it to a hospital, is looked after by colleagues and flown back to England, but the long-term injury interferes with his ability to hold a camera. Worse, it crystallises the strains in his marriage. In a few dispassionate pages he describes leaving his wife of twenty years and children, and moving in with the new love of his life, Laraine Ashton, founder of the model agency IMG.
  • 1982 the Lebanon – to cover the Israeli invasion.
  • 1983 Equatorial Guinea ‘the nastiest place on earth’.
  • 1980s A lengthy trip to see Indonesia’s most primitive tribes, in places like Irian Jiwa and the Mentawai Islands, with photographer Mark Shand (who wrote it up in a book titled Skulduggery).

Personal life

At this point in the early 1980s a lot of things went wrong for McCullin. His marriage broke down. His injuries took nearly two years to properly heal. The British authorities prevented him going with the Task Force to the Falklands War, which could have been the climax of his war career and obviously still rankles 35 years later.

And then Andrew Neil, the new editor of the Sunday Times, itself recently bought by the brash media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, turned its back on the gritty reportage of the 1960s and 70s to concentrate more on style and celebrity. As a friend summed it up to McCullin – ‘No more starving Third World babies; more successful businessmen around their weekend barbecues.’ (p.275) The book describes the meeting with Neil in which he was manoeuvred into resigning.

He was still not recovered from his injuries and now he had no job and no future.

And then came the bombshell that his first wife, the woman he left for Laraine, was dying of a brain tumour. Like everything else, this is described pithily and swiftly, but there’s no mistaking the pain it caused. The year or more it took his first wife to die of a brain tumour was traumatic and the emotional reaction and the tortured guilt he felt at having abandoned her, put a tremendous strain on his new relationship with Laraine. In the end he broke up with Laraine: she returned to her London base.

Thus, distraught at the death of Christine, McCullin found himself alone in the big house in Somerset which he’d been doing up with Laraine, with no regular job and isolated from his journo buddies. It’s out of this intense period of unhappiness and introspection that come his numerous bleak and beautiful photographs of the Somerset countryside. These were eventually gathered into a book and John Fowles, in the introduction, notes how ominously they reflect the scars of war. Maybe, McCullin muses but – now he has shared this autobiographical background – we readers are now able to see all kinds of emotions in them. Certainly he preferred winter when the trees are skeletons and the ruts and lanes are full of icy water – all under threatening black clouds.

As he turned fifty McCullin’s life concentrated more and more on mooching about in the countryside. He takes up with a model, Loretta Scott and describes their mild adventures for precisely one page (p.298). Then has a fling with Marilyn Bridges, a Bunny Girl turned impressive nature photographer. McCullin is awarded the CBE in 1993. He married Marilyn and they travel to Botswana, Bali, India and Cambodia but could never agree whether to base themselves in Somerset or in her home town of New York. There were fierce arguments and a lot of plate smashing. By 2000 he was divorced and single again.

India is his favourite country to photograph. He assembled his shots of it into a book titled India.

He had been supporting himself since he was kicked off the Sunday Times with jobs from other newspapers but mainly by doing adverts, commercial work. Lucrative but soulless. On the one hand he prided himself on being a completely reformed war junkie, on the other his soul secretly, deep down, hankered for conflict and disaster.

  • 2001 So it was a boon when he was invited to travel to Zambia, Botswana and South Africa to chronicle the devastating blight of AIDS on already impoverished people.
  • 2003 back to the same countries to check progress.
  • 2004 Ethiopia with his new wife, Catherine Fairweather (married 7 December 2002).

The Africa trips resulted in another book, Don McCullin in Africa. He tells us that in total he has authored 26 books of photography – quite an output.

  • In 2003 his old friend Charles Glass invited McCullin to accompany him back to Iraq, via their familiar contacts among the Kurds. In fact they accompany the party of Ahmad Chalabi, the smooth-talking exile who had persuaded the Americans that Saddam was running programmes to make Weapons of Mass Destruction. But both journalist and photographer are kept completely isolated among the Chalabi entourage, flown to an isolated airport miles away from any action. McCullin reflects sadly that the American military had learned the lessons of Vietnam and now kept the Press completely under control and authorised. No room for cowboys winging it and roaming the battlefields at will as per Tim Page or Michael Herr in their heyday.

Another book, In England, brought together work from assignments around the country between 1958 and 2007, generally reflecting McCullin’s sympathy with the underdog, the poor, the derelict, and he is happy that it – along with the books on Africa, India and the Somerset landscape, have come to outsell the war books. He wants to be remembered as a photographer not a ‘war photographer’. In fact the final pages describe the assignment which gave him more pleasure than anything in his life, a three-year-labour of love to visit ancient Roman sites around the Mediterranean, titled Southern Frontiers: A Journey Across The Roman Empire.

He has a stroke, from which he recovers with the help of a quadruple heart bypass – but then – aged 77 – he is persuaded to go off for one last war adventure, travelling with his friend Richard Beeston, Foreign Editor for The Times, and under the guidance of Anthony Lloyd, the paper’s Chief Foreign Correspondent,  to Aleppo, in Syria, to cover the collapse of the so-called Arab Spring into a very unpleasant civil war, to experience for one last time ‘that amazing sustained burst of adrenalin at the beginning, followed later by the tremendous whoosh of relief that comes with the completion of any dangerous undertaking’ (p.334).


Photography

Equipment is fun to play with but it’s the eye that counts. (p.340)

There’s some mention of his early cameras at the start, and a vivid description of the difficulties of getting a light reading, let alone changing film, under fire in Vietnam – but on the whole very little about the art of framing and composing a photo. The book is much more about people, stories and anecdotes. And considering the photos are the rationale for his fame and achievement, there are comparatively few examples in the book – I counted 47. And they’re printed on the same matt paper as the text i.e. not gloss reproductions on special paper.

All suggesting it’s probably best to buy the photos separately in large format, coffee-table editions.

Learnings

War is exciting and glamorous. Compelling. McCullin candidly states that many people found the Vietnam war ‘addictive’ (p.92), echoing the fairly obvious analyses of Michael Herr and Tim Page.

And he briefly remarks the need to find out whether he ‘measures up’ – like so many men, he obviously sees it as a test of his manhood: how will he react when the shooting starts? Although he reports himself as feeling panic and fear quite regularly, the evidence suggests that he was phenomenally brave to go the places he went, and to stay there through tremendous danger.

The point or purpose

The psychological cost of being a war photographer But the clear-eyed and clipped accounts of each conflict refer fairly often to the psychological cost of seeing so much trauma so close up. He reflects on the damage it must do but, that said, the text doesn’t really reflect any lasting damage. From his appallingly deprived childhood onwards, there’s always been the understated implication of his strength and bullishness. Quite regularly he refers to troubles with police, scuffles with passport officers, answering back to armed militias, standing up to bullies and generally not backing away from a fight. He’s tough and doesn’t really open up about his feelings. He is most overt about being upset to the point of despair, not about anything he witnessed but about the cruel death of his first wife to cancer, which leaves him utterly bereft for a long period.

The morality of war photography Apart from the personal cost, though, there’s also the nagging doubt that he is profiting, quite literally, from other people’s unspeakable suffering and pain. Is he a parasite, exploiting their misery? He and other war photographers justified their activities as bringing the ‘reality’ of war to the attention of a) a complacent public ignorantly preparing to tuck into their Sunday lunch b) those in authority who had the power to change it, to end it, to stop the killing.

In this vein he writes of the famine victims in Bihar:

No heroics are possible when you are photographing people who are starving. All I could do was to try and give the people caught up in this terrible disaster as much dignity as possible. There is a problem inside yourself, a sense of your own powerlessness, but it doesn’t do to let it take hold, when your job is to stir the conscience of others who can help. (p.95)

And he also gets very fired up about the plight of AIDS victims in Africa.

But well before the end of the book, he also expresses doubts whether any photo he took made any difference to any of the conflicts he covered. Re. the AIDS in Africa work, he comments:

I had a notion that this was an area in which my photographs might have a positively beneficial effect, by raising consciousness and awareness. This was not something that could be said about my war pictures, which demonstrably had not impaired the popularity of warfare. (p.304)

The latter clause reminding me of the poet W.H. Auden, who wrote a lot of socially conscious poetry throughout the 1930s, but ended up in the 1950s candidly admitting that, as he put it, no poem or play or essay he wrote ever saved a single Jew. There are limits to what even the most powerful art can achieve.

When he went to Africa in the early 2000s to chronicle the impact of AIDS McCullin really wanted these horrific pictures to have an impact, ‘to be an assault on people’s consciences’ (p.308). But I’ve been seeing photos and reports of starving Africans all my adult life. I’m afraid that, in a roundabout way, McCullin, by contributing to the tidal wave of imagery we are all now permanently surrounded with, may have contributed to creating precisely the indifference and apathy he claims to be trying to puncture.

Is war photography art? McCullin was given a retrospective exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum in the 1980s (he has subsequently had numerous exhibitions, at Tate, the Imperial War Museum, all the top galleries). He describes his pride at the time in being chosen by the V&A, and it is an accolade indeed – but does rather confirm the sense that, precisely insofar as the photos are changed and transmuted into ‘works of art’, hung on walls and discussed by slick connoisseurs, so they lose their power to upset and disturb, the purpose he ostensibly created them for, and enter the strangely frozen world of art discourse.

I had drafted this thought before I came upon McCullin’s own reflection on photography-as-art on the penultimate page of this long and fascinating book.

One of the things that does disturb me is that some documentary photography is now being presented as art. Although I am hugely honoured to have been one of the first photographers to have their work bought and exhibited by the Tate Gallery, I feel ambiguous about my photographs being treated as art. I really can’t talk of the people in my war photographs as art. They are real. They are not arranging themselves for the purposes of display. They are people whose suffering I have inhaled and that I’ve felt bound to record. But it’s the record of the witness that’s important, not the artistic impression. I have been greatly influenced by art, it’s true, but I don’t see this kind of photograph itself as being art. (p.341)

From the horse’s mouth, a definitive statement of the problem and his (very authoritative) opinion about it.

Photography in the age of digital cameras and the internet Then again, maybe the photographer doesn’t have any say over how his or her art is, ultimately, consumed and defined.

Superficially, yes, the first few McCullin photos you see are shocking, vivid and raw depictions of terror, grief and shock – but the cumulative effect of looking at hundreds of them is rather to dull the senses – exactly as thousands of newspaper, radio, TV and internet reports, photos and videos have worked to dull and numb all of us from the atrocity which is always taking place somewhere in the world (war in Syria, famine in Somalia). It’s hard not to end up putting aside the ’emotional’ content and evaluating them purely in formal terms of composition and lighting, colour and shade, the ‘drama’ or emotional content of the pose.

History If the photos didn’t really change the course of any of the wars he reported on, and nowadays are covered in the reassuring patina of ‘art’, to be savoured via expensive coffee table books and in classy art galleries – there is one claim which remains solid. His work will remain tremendously important as history.

Taken together, McCullin’s photographs amount to a documentary history of most of the significant conflicts of the last 40 years of the twentieth century. And this autobiography plays an important role in creating a continuous narrative and context to underpin them, providing short but very useful, focused background explanations to most of the conflicts which the photographs depict.

Early on in his story, McCullin remarks that his National Service was a kind of Cook’s Tour of the end of the British Empire. In a way the rest of his career has been a continuation of that initial itinerary, as he ended up visiting some 120 countries to record for posterity how peoples all around the world lived, fought and died during his and our troubled times.

‘I was, what I always hoped to be, an independent witness.’ (p.116)


Credit

Unreasonable Behaviour (revised edition) by Don McCullin was published by Jonathan Cape in 2015. All references and quotes are to the 2015 hardback edition.

Related links

Reviews of photography exhibitions

Malick Sidibé @ Somerset House

‘For me photography is all about youth.’ Malick Sidibé

Somerset House is a rabbit warren of attractions with at least two cafes, several art shops, and a number of exhibition spaces. In the terrace rooms in the South Wing (i.e. overlooking the Thames, next to Waterloo Bridge) are three rooms currently devoted to African photographer Malick Sidibé (1936-2016).

Sidibé was born in Mali. During the 1950s, using a lightweight Kodak camera, he cycled the countryside around the capital Bamako taking photos of weddings and other family occasions, establishing himself as the country’s only travelling photographer.

As the country was winning its independence from France in 1960, Sidibé set up a studio in Bamako and began making scores of studies of Malians, which capture the youthful enthusiasm, creativity and cool of the young nation. The exhibition brings together 45 high quality prints into three rooms arranged by theme:

Tiep à Bamako / Nightlife in Bamako

Contrast of the formal 1960s black and white suits with the exuberance of party

Au Fleuve Niger / Beside the Niger River

Le Studio / The Studio

Why do they work?

  1. Black and white is always better than colour.
  2. It makes the images crisp and well-defined. All the photos are clear and well lit, he’s not interested in shadows, grey or mystery. Everything stands out in clarity.
  3. They’re all of people, there are no landscapes or objects. And young people. Young, vibrant, energetic people, dancing or goofing by the river or pulling poses in the studio. This spirit of youth and energy comes over infectiously. They’re happy pictures.
  4. There are several levels of the ‘exotic’, or of distance, going on in the photos:
    1. The 1960s photos capture that faraway decade when people jived and twisted while wearing narrow-lapelled black and white suits.
    2. They’re all African i.e. black, in both respects a remote culture from the 100% white visitors to the gallery.
    3. Style. The 60s dancers could be white, the lads and lassies by the river could at a pinch be white – but the studio shots could only be African, in the super-confident brashness of their clothes and poses, the clashing styles and big shades and surreal accessories, the stripes and checks and leopard skin patterns of the wild pants and jackets. Much emphasised when he used a strong striped background, to give the sitters even more visual energy.

These explosions and clashes of geometric designs have something in common with the Op Art of the 1960s, for example the work of Bridget Riley. Except that it is real, walking, talking, singing, dancing art, created by the incredible disparate taste and confidence of Sidibé’s sitters and captured again and again in these wonderful photos.

African tracks

Playing on a loop are 31 tracks by African artists selected by DJ Rita Ray, including Miriam Makebe, Boubacar Traoré, Youssou N’Dour, Ali Farka Touré. It isn’t in the show, but my favourite Boubacar track is Adieu Pierrette.

This is a video prepared for a different exhibition, but which is very informative.

And here’s a full length documentary about Sidibé by Cosima Spender.

Related links

South Africa: The art of a nation @ the British Museum

This is an interesting and enlightening exhibition with plenty of good things in it, but which in parts is a little puzzling and frustrating.

Deep prehistory

The curators (John Giblin, Chris Spring and Laura Snowling) say they’re setting out to give an overview of the art of South Africa and this they certainly do with visual representations of every period of South Africa, beginning in the inconceivably distant past with a stone from a site inhabited by pre-humans some 3 million years ago. The experts think it was brought from some distance away because of its presumable similarity to a human face, and so indicates self-awareness in our remotest ancestors.

There’s a hand axe made by Homo ergaster, a predecessor of Homo sapiens, and dated to 1 million years ago – apparently, in fact, not that practical as an axe, but here to demonstrate that an aesthetic sense seems to have existed in our remotest ancestors.

There’s the Blombos Cave beads, created some 75,000 years ago, painted and pierced in order to be strung together as a necklace. There’s the Coldstream Stone from 9,000 years ago.

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

Coldstream Stone, ochre, stone (c. 7,000 BC) © Iziko Museums of South Africa, Social History Collections, Cape Town

And the beautiful Zaamenkomst Panel, cave paintings made between one and three thousand years ago.

Taken together, these wonderful objects give a powerful sense of South Africa as one of the origins not only of early humans but of the earliest art works.

Contemporary art

What’s a little confusing is that right from the start this very museum-y ancient history is mixed in with works by contemporary South African artists – a lot of works. It may be creative curating, but it means it’s quite a lot to take on board – the origins of our species, the ancient prehistory of the area, done rather quickly – while, at the same time, we’re trying to understand post-apartheid art which, by its nature, mixes African traditions with the confusing panoply of postmodern artistic techniques and assumptions.

Thus I can see that it’s clever to place Potent fields by Karel Nel (2002) next to the ancient cave paintings, since both use ochre as a colour and material. And the curators have put a tapestry, ‘The Creation of the Sun‘, made by artists at the Bethesda Art Centre, opposite the cave paintings to show the continuity of style and creativity from South Africa’s first peoples, the San|Bushmen and Khoekhoen, to their contemporary descendants. In these first rooms we also see:

Clever but… it demands quite a lot of the visitor to juggle all these different frames of reference.

Tone

Another slightly disorienting element is the rather patronising or simplistic tone of the commentary. Right at the start there’s a wall panel titled ‘Cradle of Humanity’, which points out that the prehistoric finds gathered here prove that humanity evolved in Africa and so that – contrary to Eurocentric narratives – we are all in a deep sense Africans. What puzzled me is that I’ve never thought otherwise, I’ve never read anywhere anywhere any alternative theory of human origins: all my adult life I’ve known that humans evolved from apelike ancestors in Africa, my children know that, everyone knows it. A quick search reveals that Darwin suggested it as long ago as 1871 in The Descent of Man. Who are they arguing with? If apartheid taught that humans evolved in some other place – like Holland – it would have been informative and funny to have read more about it.

Scattered throughout the exhibition are wall panels talking about the need to fight and counter apartheid ‘narratives’ about the ‘savagery’ of the blacks or their ‘lack of culture’ – all cast in the present tense, as if this is an ongoing struggle.

a) I was there in the 1980s when we all wore anti-apartheid badges, sang along to ‘Free Nelson Mandela‘ and ‘Biko‘, and boycotted South African products. I never met anybody who in any way defended apartheid. Looking around the visitors to the show, I don’t think there was much risk that any of them would defend ‘apartheid narratives’ about ‘savage’ blacks or the ‘lack of black culture’.
b) It was all such a long time ago. The apartheid regime collapsed in the early 1990s and free elections brought the ANC government to power in 1994, 22 years ago. Many of the wall panels give the impression the curators are still bravely fighting a battle which, in fact, ended a generation ago. My companion joked that maybe their next exhibition should be devoted to bringing down the Soviet Union.

Because of the interleaving of big and very varied works by contemporary artists I found the timeline of pre-colonial South African art a bit hard to follow. I got that the Bantu people spread across the region (which in fact I knew from Chris Stringer’s book The Origin of Our Species). There was a case of exquisite gold statuettes of African animals, including a golden rhino which, we were told, are from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290). Maybe I blinked and missed the follow-up information, but I would really have liked to learn much more about the rise of kingdoms and territories and language groups and cultures and traditions across this huge area.

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria

Gold rhino from Mapungubwe, capital of the first kingdom in southern Africa (c. AD 1220–1290) Department of Arts © University of Pretoria. The golden rhino is now the symbol of the Order of Mapungubwe, South Africa’s highest honour that was first presented in 2002 to Nelson Mandela.

Maybe the history just isn’t there, I mean the written history that would allow that kind of detailed narrative to be constructed. There were a few display cases showing weapons – a big shield made of hide alongside spears – and another one containing traditional carved wood figures, including a really beautiful ‘stylised wooden figure’, examples of traditional beadwork and some striking traditional dresses.

But I felt slightly afraid of liking anything because the wall labels made quite a point, repeatedly, of emphasising how the European colonists from the first Dutch arrivals in the 1650s through to the end of apartheid in the 1990s, had in a whole host of ways denied the validity of pre-colonial art and culture, denying in fact that the land was inhabited at all or, if conceding that it was, then only by ‘savages’ who didn’t plough or reap, by non-Christians who needed to be converted, by violent tribesmen who needed to be pacified.

And that one of the ways the European colonists/imperialists/racists limited and controlled the native people was by defining their art and traditions as ‘exotic’, pigeonholing them as ‘primitive’, demeaning and debasing their traditions and achievements. Thus told off, I felt a little scared about ‘liking’ any of the pre-colonial art in case I was displaying an ‘ethnocentric’ and patronising taste for ‘the exotic’.

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (Late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

Xhosa snuffbox in the shape of an ox, South Africa (late 19th Century) © The Trustees of the British Museum

This unnerved me because some of my favourite objects in the whole British Museum are the wonderful bronzes of Benin, among the most complete and finished works of art I know of from anywhere – as well as the whole range of weird and wonderful and powerful fetishes, images and carvings in the Museum’s Africa galleries.

Contemporary art 2

Anyway, the main thing about this exhibition is that interwoven among the pre-colonial artefacts which you would normally associate with the British Museum, are the works of a large number of modern and contemporary South African artists, black and white, men and women. Hopefully we are freer to express an opinion about these without running the risk of being considered ethnocentric or Eurocentric.

Apparently, the Museum has been collecting contemporary South African art for some 20 years, since – in other words – the collapse of apartheid, the first free elections and the coming to power of Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress. This explains why so many contemporary artworks are threaded through the show right from the first room and why the later rooms are entirely full of what you’d call modern art.

Artists and works

  • The Watchers by Francki Burger (2014) a photo montage of the site of the Battle of Spion Kop in the Boer War.
  • Oxford Man by Owen Ndou
  • Pantomime Act and Trilogy by Johannes Phokela
  • The Battle of Rorke’s Drift by John Muafangejo
  • Butcher Boys by Jane Alexander (1986) not actually physically in the show, there is a vivid photo of it here.
  • It left him cold – the death of Steve Biko (1990) by Sam Nhlengethwa
  • The Black Photo Album/Look at Me by Santu Mofokeng, who has spent years researching and retouching hundreds of b&w photographs commissioned by urban black working and middle-class families in South Africa between 1890 and 1950.
  • Christ playing football by Jackson Hlungwani (1983)
  • Candice Breitz’s extended video ‘Extras’, filmed on the set of a popular black soap opera, in which all the actors play out straight soap opera scenes except with the artist herself, blonde Candice, placed in bizarre stationary positions around the set. I laughed out loud when I read that it explores ‘an absent presence or a present absence’ – it’s good to know that Artbollocks is a truly international language.

Willie Bester’s Transition (1994) commemorates seven children killed when security forces stormed a house supposedly occupied by terrorists. (See a video of the artist talking about it)

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

Transition (1994) by Willie Bester (born 1956). Private collection © the artist

South African Timeline

It was difficult to grasp the ancientness of the earliest exhibits here, which wasn’t helped by their interspersion with bang up-to-date contemporary art. Apart from the gold animal statues from Mapungubwe (which I’d like to have learned more about), you got little sense of the region’s pre-colonial history. Many artefacts (carvings, weapons, figurines), yes; but a clear chronology with maps? Less so.

Purely from the point of view of being able to orient oneself in time and space, it was in many ways a relief to enter recorded, written history with the arrival of the Europeans and the (all-too-familiar) story of colonisation. The Portuguese made the first contacts in the 1490s, but it was the Dutch who built a settlement at Table Bay in the 1650s, as a stopover on the long sea voyages to their trading colonies in the East Indies. The British seized Cape Town from the Dutch during the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815). It was this dual colonisation which explains why the country is English-speaking but with a large Dutch or Afrikaans minority, a minority the British went to war with twice, in the First Boer War (1880-81) and the more famous second Boer War (1899-1902).

It was informative to learn how in the 19th century the British Empire imported labour from elsewhere in Africa and Asians from Indonesia and India, to work in South Africa. The exhibition includes one of the distinctive pointed hats worn by Chinese immigrants, as well as a pair of sandals the most famous Indian immigrant – Mahatma Gandhi – made for the country’s leader, General Jan Smuts, while he was in prison in 1913. Gandhi was to formulate many of the ideas in racist South Africa which he then took back to India to use in his campaign for independence.

As a language student I learned:

  • That ‘Hottentot’ was a Dutch nonsense word meaning ‘one who stutters’, insultingly applied to the native blacks because of the use of click sounds in the San language. Hence it is a derogatory word which is not now used.
  • That ‘Kaffir’, another derogatory term for blacks widely used in colonial times, derives from the Arabic for ‘unbeliever’.
  • That ‘Boer’ derives from the Dutch word for ‘farmer’.

What I’ve never really understood and didn’t get any enlightenment about here, is the period between the First World War – when South Africa sent troops to fight alongside the British – and the end of the Second World War, when the foundations were laid by Nationalist governments for the system which would become apartheid. There were several rooms about the evils of apartheid and one about the end of apartheid, but I was left as ignorant as before about the origins of apartheid – about the economic, social and cultural forces which led to its creation, with the main milestones clearly marked out and explained.

Modern South Africa

The room full of images of the horror, violence and oppression of 1960s and 70s and 80s apartheid, with records of the Sharpeville Massacre (1960), the murder of Steve Biko (1977), a display case full of ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ badges and so on, felt very familiar to me from my school days in the 1970s and student days in the 1980s, when we all protested against apartheid, signed petitions, boycotted South African goods and so on.

As I viewed photos and artworks depicting the humiliations, poverty, incredibly long hours forced to work in menial jobs and the debasement and restrictions imposed on blacks by the apartheid state, I wondered whether the exhibition was going to dwell on the exploitation, the anger and the resistance of people during that era, and move on to cover the 25 years since Nelson Mandela was released, when things have got a lot less black and white.

For according to the newspapers, TV, documentaries and films which I consume, since liberation South Africa has developed into one of the most crime-ridden societies in the world, with just over 50 murders a day, and so many rapes that it has been called ‘the rape capital of the world, with one in four men admitting to having raped someone’.

At the same time South Africa is thought to have more people with HIV/AIDS than any other country in the world – 5.7 million, 12% of the population of 48 million. There was a small display case showing some dollies made in a traditional style which were a response to the AIDS epidemic by an artistic collective – but nothing about the era of ‘denialism’ under Thabo Mbeki (president from 1999 to 2008), who refused to accept the link between HIV and AIDS, and whose ban on antiretroviral drugs in public hospitals is estimated to be responsible for the premature deaths of between 330,000 and 365,000 people.

BMW Art Car 12 (1991( by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

BMW Art Car 12 (1991) by Esther Mahlangu (b. 1935) © Esther Mahlangu. Photo © BMW Group Archives

Contemporary South Africa today faces immense social, political, economic and medical challenges.

In the videos supporting the exhibition, the Museum curators make the point that this is quite a ‘political’ exhibition. That would have been the case if this was 1986 and voices could be found – in Mrs Thatcher’s Conservative Party, say, or the CIA – which defended the South African apartheid regime as a vital bulwark against Soviet-backed communism – but that was an era ago and it feels like they are fighting yesterday’s war.

Throughout the exhibition the curators criticise the Eurocentrism and racism of the colonists and the Imperialists and the founders of apartheid, who denied or denigrated black cultural achievements – as if this was still a battle being fought now; as if apartheid is still a flourishing regime which urgently needs challenging; as if unregenerate imperialist views about pre-colonial South African history are still widely held by lots of people.

In the exhibition, gold treasures of Mapungubwe will be displayed alongside a modern artwork by Penny Siopis and a sculpture by Owen Ndou that encourage the viewer to challenge the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras. (Press release)

Really? Does anyone even know what ‘the historic assumptions of the colonial and apartheid eras’ are, that are being challenged? In this respect it feels incredibly old-fashioned: the Us-versus-Them mindset made me nostalgic for my student days when international politics were so much clearer cut.

Meanwhile, back in 2017, the modern ‘struggle’ in South Africa is to formulate economic and social policies which will boost the economy and try to spread wealth and well-being out to the great bulk of the (black) population who have never seen the benefits of the end of apartheid and who are still mired in poverty and illness. A much harder ‘struggle’ because it is no longer so easy to identify the goodies and the baddies and, in fact, there may be no easy solutions.

Credit

Hats off to Betsy and Jack Ryan who sponsored the exhibition and to IAG Cargo who transported many of these objects from museums and galleries across South Africa. It’s a brilliant opportunity to see all kinds of works from South Africa, from the rarest prehistoric artefacts to bang up-to-date contemporary art. Maybe it’s my fault if I found so many complex histories and paradigms difficult to process in one visit.


The trailer

Museums and galleries are producing more and more videos to explain their exhibitions. The British Museum has set up a channel containing eight videos about this show.

I strongly recommend watching the videos before going to see the exhibition, as they explain the rationale for the layout, and prepare you for the emphasis on modern artworks, ahead of your arrival.

Related links

Reviews

Reviews of other British Museum shows

The Mission Song by John le Carré (2006)

I don’t like le Carré’s later fiction. The Secret Pilgrim (1990) set the tone, a series of tales told by a self-important retirement-age security bore which revealed le Carré’s most famous character, George Smiley, to be a pompous ass. The series of novels from The Night Manager onwards seem to me:

  • to almost exclusively feature repellently posh, upper-class, public-school-educated ‘heroes’
  • who have no trouble ‘bagging’ lots of posh totty, with James Bondish ease
  • who form self-regarding cliques in which everyone is a ‘legend’ – the incomparable X, the well-known Y, the notorious Z – our loyal A, our famous B, our legendary C
  • but who also enjoy sensitive and doomed love affairs with one spectacularly beautiful, incomparably intelligent etc etc love object (whose epitome is the saintly Tessa in The Constant Gardener)
  • with each novel dominated by a Major Contemporary Issue (the wickedness of arms dealers in The Night Manager – the wickedness of big pharmaceutical companies in The Constant Gardener – the wickedness of the ‘war on terror’ in Absolute Friends)
  • and all told in repetitive, bombastic prose

For the first few pages, The Mission Song seems like it’s evaded these dangers. Unusually, it is

a) told in the first person
b) and – in a bold experiment – told by the orphaned, illegitimate son of an Irish Catholic missionary and a native Congolese woman, one Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo.

However, the all-too-familiar features of le Carré’s fiction soon comes flooding back in. For Salvador, it turns out, was raised by highly educated Catholic missionaries before being sent to an English public school where, like all le Carré’s later protagonists, he has picked up the irritatingly pompous turns of phrase which dominate his style and, therefore, the entire book. Far from attempting ‘black’ speech rhythms, Salvo’s half-caste nature and public school background do the reverse, with the result that le Carré’s naturally overblown prose style is actually turned up! Half the time Salvo sounds like Bertie Wooster.

It is a known fact that the thoughts of the most loyal raw recruit on the eve of battle stray in unforeseen directions, some of them downright mutinous. And I will not pretend that my own were in this regard exempt… (p.88)

Not exactly ‘street’, is it, nor particularly African. The extraordinarily PG Wodehouse style is matched by the high class circles Salvo moves in by virtue of having married a journalist. Being le Carré, she is of course the famous, the legendary female journalist, Penelope, described as the shining star in the firmament of her famous Fleet Street proprietor, and consorting with her gives him access to high-toned parties and eminent movers and shakers. The book becomes posher by the minute.

Adultery being a standard le Carré theme, it is no surprise to learn that the legendary Penelope is in fact having an affair with her boss, Thorne, nicknamed with characteristically leaden humour, ‘Thorne the Horn’. Feeling thus released from his marriage vows, the novel opens with Salvo energetically screwing the new love of his life, a black Congolese nurse named Hannah, who he’s met while interpreting at a local hospital.

For, like so many of the later novels, this one drips with sex sex sex sex – the hero thinks about sex on almost every page. This opening scene sets the tone and thereafter, almost every page recalls Salvo and Hannah ripping each other’s clothes off, her cry as she climaxes, her scent on his clothes and his mobile phone, memories of her startled open mouth, her wide eyes as he penetrates her, her lips moving down from his, the bed sheets revealing her breast, falling between her parted thighs, and so on and on, a leitmotiv through the rest of the text.

Claiming to believe I am not taking her seriously, she wilfully flings back the bedclothes and sits up. And you have to know how beautiful she is… (p.122)

Salvo’s general lecherousness is to the fore when he is escorted round the British Intelligence offices by a functionary, Bridget, while Salvo admires her tight jeans and imagines undressing her. When, a lot later, he packs and leaves his flat, he is button-holed in the hallway by his wife’s best friend, Paula, wearing only a dressing gown, who asks if he wants to have sex with her, then begs him to have sex with her (p.280). Truly, he is a babe magnet and a stud muffin.

In summary, then, within a few pages, the reader has been introduced to yet another public-school-educated protagonist, who moves in swanky London circles, beds women with effortless ease, but is also a sensitive soul, in love with his ravishing new belle, Hannah, who he describes in the same sentimental terms as the beautiful, uniquely intelligent love objects of the previous six novels, and whose story is going to be told in pompously self-important prose.

And the Major Contemporary Issue without which it wouldn’t be late le Carré? The endless war in the Congo.

If you read the Wikipedia article or any contemporary reporting from Congo, you will find this conflict has been raging since about 1995, if not before, and has claimed more casualties than the Second World War. It is a vast panorama of death and atrocity and rape, which most of us don’t read about because the papers don’t write about it much. All of which – the Western hypocrisy and the media indifference – make le Carré very angry.

But burning anger isn’t enough. Social media and online newspaper comments show the world is full of incoherently angry people. The ability to analyse the problem out into readable prose is what a reader has a right to expect of an author.

The plot

Part one – the conference

After public school Salvo has made a career in England as a translator, translating from a range of obscure African languages in which he is expert, into English or French. It was doing a translation job for Penelope (translating an African claiming to have a great scoop, but who turned out to be a con-man) that so impressed her that she took him to bed, where he was so impressed by her sexual technique that he proposed to her and so – to shock her Surrey parents – she married a black man.

He also, we learn, has done work from time to time for a Mr Anderson, from Britain’s Security Services. The following passage gives a good feel for Salvo’s rhetorical magniloquence, his self-importance, and for the entertaining lack of self-awareness with which he refers to himself as a sexual stud.

Did I bubble out the rest to Bridget? Appoint her my substitute confessor in Hannah’s absence? Unveil to her how, until I met Penelope, I was a twenty-three-year-old closet virgin, a dandy in my personal appearance but, underneath my carefully constructed facade, saddled with enough hang-ups to fill a walk-in cupboard? – that brother Michael’s attentions and Père André’s before him had left me in a sexual twilight from which I feared to emerge? [he was abused by Catholic missionaries in Africa] – that my dear late father’s guilt regarding his explosion of the senses [late in life, Salvo’s Catholic priest father discovered sex] had transferred itself wholesale and without deductions to his son? – and how as our taxi sped towards Penelope’s flat I had dreaded the moment that she would literally uncover my inadequacy, such was my timidity regarding the female sex? – and that thanks to her knowhow and micro-management all ended well? – extremely well – more well than she could have imagined, she assured me, Salvo being her dream mustang – the best in her stable, she might have added – her Alpha Male Plus? Or, as she later put it to her friend Paula when they thought I wasn’t listening, her chocolate soldier always standing to attention? (p.66)

En route from his clandestine fuck with the African nurse Hannah to the VIP party for his wife, this Alpha Male Plus is waylaid by a mobile phone call from Mr Anderson, asking him for a meeting. Anderson persuades him to ditch the party and come do some really important work for the old country, the ‘Britain’ to which Salvo feels ludicrously, naively, attached. And so he gets a taxi to South Audley Street where, in between ogling Bridget in her tight jeans, Anderson gives him a deliberately vague outline of the mission and he finds himself Bertie Woosterishly agreeing to do it, for the Old Country.

The Alpha Male Plus is given casual clothes (all the time lecherously imagining the beautiful assistant’s clothes magically falling off and them making love there and then), then taxied across London to a helicopter, which flies to Luton airport where he is taken aboard a secret flight.

On board the plane Salvo meets some rough mercenary types – Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider – who shout and swear a lot and give him further vague info about the ‘conference’ he’s booked to translate at. For the first time he learns it’s something to do with his ostensible homeland, the Congo. The plane lands at an isolated airstrip and they all drive in the dark to an old, castle-style mansion on a coast somewhere, maybe Scotland? Denmark?

Here Maxie (aka the Skipper) explains that a big peace conference is taking place in Denmark between various interested parties in the Congo conflict. Some combination of British interests have arranged a ‘side meeting’ to the conference, to take place at this isolated and discreet location. Here they have invited three representatives of the Congo’s warring tribes and factions to be brought together with a charismatic Congolese leader, the Mwangaza. The Mwazanga allegedly represents some ‘third way’ for the country, although when we meet him, his expository speech is so blustering and bombastic – as is almost all the dialogue in this terrible book – that it’s either difficult to understand or childishly crude:

‘I am the Mwazanga, the messenger of harmonious coexistence and prosperity for all Kivu. I think with my head, not with my gun, or my panga, or my penis.’ (p.150)

The central 150 pages of this novel claim to describe this meeting of the leaders of political factions from a war-torn country. You would expect there to be cunning and wheeler-dealing, gambit and counter-gambit, a subtle exposition of the situation and possible areas of agreement – the kind of thing, for example, I heard when I worked at the Department for International Development at around the period this novel was published. These kind of meetings are generally well prepared in advance, and even if the talk is frank, there are identifiable positions and interests at stake.

Swearing instead of analysis

But if you expected analysis of the situation in Congo, or a clear-headed account of the history which led to the current shambles, or an explanation of the various peace plans on the table – you will be sorely disappointed by this book. Instead of cool analysis you get people swearing: first the mercenaries on the plane deliver an insultingly crude and sweary account of the situation. Fair enough, they are military hard men. But the (lengthy) scenes with the three political leaders and their aides is a farrago of effing and blinding.

Haj: Holy shit! My dad warned me the old boy was heavy duty, but this is something else. Aw, aw, aw. Why does he talk Swahili like a Tanzanian with a paw-paw stuck up his arse?’ (p.175)

It’s like being in the men’s toilet at a football match. The foul language goes on for scores of pages. It is interspersed with Salvo’s weirdly out-of-date and preening prose. And his fuck-filled accounts of the ‘negotiations’ are themselves interspersed with his memories of fucking young Hannah just before he left England. Taken together, this brew creates the most revolting pages of prose I’ve read in years.

This book represents an incredible come-down from the author of the brilliantly cunning classic, The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, or who gave us the under-stated, coolly calibrating spy-master George Smiley. That author is long dead and now le Carré’s characters routinely swear and shout and grandstand – the more some kind of intelligence is required, the more the reader expects analysis and information – the more foul-mouthed the dialogue becomes.

Here one of the delegates, Haj, is ridiculing the Mwazanga’s lofty rhetoric:

Allies in what, for fuck’s sake? To achieve what? A united Kivu? North and South? My friends. Let us seize hold of our resources and thereby control our destiny. Humph humph. They’ve been seized, arsehole! By a bunch of Rwandan crazies who are armed to the eyeballs and raping our women in their spare time! Those interahamwe guys up there are so well dug in, the fucking UN doesn’t dare to fly over them, without asking their permission first. (p.179)

It is like this for page after page.

As to the plot, Salvo, as official translator during the ‘sessions’, is given free rein of the multiple bugs and microphones hidden everywhere around the building and its grounds in order to report to his superiors, Maxie and the new arrival, the posh upper-class (of course) Englishman, Philip.

But (predictably) Salvo also hears ‘things he shouldn’t’. With incredible naivety, he appears to have expected everyone to behave nobly and virtuously, to be motivated by love of their country and humanity. So he is horrified to discover that the Brits appear to want something out of the deal, and the three delegates are demanding up-front payments for themselves.

The deal

The plan being proposed by ‘our guys’ is that before Congo’s next elections – due to be held in just two weeks time – the ‘Syndicate’ ie British interests – will, with the three leaders’ help, foment disorder on the streets. This will prompt armed intervention which will instal ‘our redeemer’, the Mwazanga, as a moderate middle-of-the-road leader who will restore peace. In other words the Brits are planning to stage an undemocratic coup.

The ‘Syndicate’ will station mercenaries at air bases in each of the three leaders’ territories for six months, during which they will be able to extract ore from conveniently nearby mines and sell it on the world market at a tidy profit.

Only an idiot would be surprised to learn all the players in this squalid meeting are in it for what they can get, instead of bringing Peace and Freedom to Congo – but Salvo comes across, throughout, as just such a preening, sex-mad imbecile. Every aspect of his character is literally unbelievable: the absurdly Wodehousian diction; the absurdly unironic references to himself as a sexual stud; the absurdly unthinking British patriotism; and the naivety with which he approaches a political conference.

Salvo is disillusioned

Not only is Salvo disillusioned at the participants’ motivation. To his amazement he hears, on headphones in the ‘control room’, one of the delegates, Haj, during a break in the negotiations, apparently being tortured with some kind of cattle prod. It becomes clear Haj is being tortured by Maxie, the hard man in the plane over, into admitting that he represents not only his father’s tribe and interests, but a French corporation which, on closer examination, turns out to be run by a group of Halliburton-type American corporate executives. He also appears to confess that the 30% of takings from the Syndicate’s operations which were pledged to the Mwazanga – and which the Mwazanga had pledged to improving the Congo’s lost – schools, hospitals etc – will in fact go directly to this US corporation. Tut tut. Secret deals. At a diplomatic conference!

Then Haj, once they’ve stopped torturing him and he’s recovered, himself demands $3 million before he’ll sign the ‘agreement’ drawn up by the team’s slippery lawyer, Monsieur Jasper. (I found the way Haj was tied down and electrocuted, and then only ten minutes later is making deals with his torturers, a little hard to believe.)

So upset is he at this bitter disillusionment that Salvo makes the stupid decision to smuggle the tapes which have been recording the conference, and the notebooks he’s been scribbling it all down in, back to Blighty. At the conclusion of the ‘conference’, the delegates sign the ‘contract’ with varying degrees of enthusiasm. The coup is set for a few weeks time. Can Salvo stop it?

Part two – back in London

The ‘contract’ signed, the Africans fly back to their big conference in Denmark and our boys drive back to the little airport, get their charter plane back to Luton, and this is where Salvo is dropped off. He makes his way, guiltily laden with his bag of contraband tapes and notebooks, back to the up-market Battersea flat he shares with the Top Journalist Penelope. Here he makes the decision to leave her for the new Love of His Life, Hannah. So he packs a few belongings, takes off his wedding ring, skips past his wife’s friend, Paula, who chooses this moment to offer to fuck him – and goes look for the beautiful African nurse.

They rent a room in a flop house kept by an Asian couple, the Hakims, and have sex. Quite a few times. And in between discuss what to do. In among all the conversations and hurried phone calls during the conference, Salvo had heard Philip put one through to one Lord Brinkley in London, a character he (conveniently) happens to have met through his wife’s high society contacts. From what Salvo could hear,  posh Philip was on the phone to Brinkley giving feedback on the conference and asking Brinkley for the go-ahead to the coup.

Salvo very stupidly decides that if he can only confront Lord B, the latter will realise that he has – oh dear – been led astray and will immediately call the wicked plan off. So, with stupefying naivety, he goes to visit Lord Brinkley and his terrifically posh wife Kitty – ‘We’re in the drawing room, dahling‘. To nobody’s surprise except stupid Salvo, they both deny ever having met him before or having had the phone conversation he alludes to or knowing the people he mentions.

But now the conspirators know that Salvo has gone loco on them. Bad. To nobody’s surprise except his own, the apartment he shared with Penelope is comprehensively turned over. If Salvo had read any kind of thriller, or seen a movie, or ever watched a TV detective series, Salvo would have known this is absolutely par for the course. But he hasn’t, and he doesn’t, because he’s an idiot. It is impossible to belive in a thriller whose protagonist is an idiot.

Baptiste

Hannah says she knows a true Congolese patriot, Baptiste who can help so they arrange a meeting. Here Baptiste – all wraparound shades, gold bling and aggressive attitude – listens to the chocolate soldier’s story but alas, he is as potty-mouthed as all the other characters.

‘Let’s do facts. Here are the facts. Your friend here fucks you, right? Your friend’s friend knows he fucks you, so he comes to your friend. And he tells your friend a story, which your friend repeats to you because he’s fucking you. You are rightly incensed by this story, so you bring your friend who is fucking you to me, so that he can tell it all over again, which is what your friend’s friend reckoned would happen all along. We call that disinformation.‘ (p.329)

Do we? Is that a shrewd summary of disinformation? Despite the idiotic swearing, Baptiste claims to be some kind of sophisticated political mover and shaker – but in the next breath he also is revealed as a naive fool, because he point blank refuses to believe that his hero, the Mwazanga, has sold out to the West, to the White Man, to the fat cats in Kinshasa. So he simply refuses to believe Salvo’s story that the conference is a stitch-up and tells him and Hannah to get the fuck out.

Well, that wasn’t very helpful.

Mr Anderson

Next, Salvo catches a train to Sevenoaks where he tracks down his ‘control’, the man who represents ‘the Security Services’, who has given him various jobs in the past and gave him this particular job just a few days ago, the man he trusts most in the world, Mr Anderson. He tracks Anderson down to the very fine public school (is there any other type, old boy?) where he is rehearsing with his choir, and interrupts the practice.

They go to a quiet room and Salvo hands him the 20-page dossier he has written about the whole affair named, with stunning unoriginality, J’Accuse. Salvo naively tells this Security Service high-up that ‘we must stop the coup’. Guess what? Go on. Mr Anderson hears him out, then very politely says he has gone out of his way to help Salvo in the past and now is very saddened that in exchange Salvo has betrayed his trust and broken the Official Secrets Act. He gets out his phone to call someone ominous, maybe some heavies to come collect Salvo. Imbecile that he is, Salvo is surprised and stunned that someone high up in British Intelligence doesn’t want to betray or cancel a top secret operation. Salvo stalks out.

The only thing surprising in this sequence is what being back in a public school setting does to the already antiquated prose.

Seconds later Mr Anderson himself squeezed his bulk round the door and, looking past me as if I wasn’t there, addressed his womenfolk in tones of command. ‘Mary, I’ll trouble you both to go home and await my return.’ (p.339)

A lot of le Carré’s prose is like seeing a rare animal in a zoo – you didn’t realise stuff this pompous, stuffy and out of date was still alive.

Thorne the Horn

Fergus Thorn is nicknamed ‘Thorn the Horn’ because he’s notorious for screwing women. The horn? Sex? Gettit? (If you think that’s a hilarious nickname, this book is for you.) He is Penelope’s boss at the high-end newspaper where we are repeatedly told she is the rising star. Sometime in the past they had a run-in with Lord Brinkley who sued them for defamation and nearly bankrupted them. So Salvo phones a sceptical Horn and asks for a meeting. Here in a darkened wine bar, Salvo hands over the 20-page dossier and says he has phone recordings of Brinkley’s voice authorising the money for the coup.

Unfortunately, the Horn is another character who le Carré thinks will sound modern and thrusting and contemporary if he’s made to think crudely and swear a lot. And talk in italics. Thus, taking Salvo up on his offer, the Horn briefs the hacks who’ve come with him:

‘Sophie. Flash your tits at the security firms. Who’s MaxieColonel Maxie? Maxie who? If he’s a mercenary, he’s ex-Special Forces. How ex? Who does he fuck? What schools did he go to?’ (p.356)

Presumably this must be the approach which bags him so many women. But when Salvo rifles in his bag to find the incriminating tapes, he finds them gone. The Horn becomes progressively more sarcastic as Salvo’s search becomes more desperate, until the latter finally gives up and is forced to leave with his tail between his legs, the deal unconcluded.

On the way back to the hostel, Salvo realises what must have happened. Hannah stole the tapes. (For a moment I thought Hannah would turn out to be MI6’s woman all along and only having the affair with Salvo to monitor him in case he turned out to be unreliable; that would have been a bit clever. But no. She is every inch the high-minded social warrior Salvo and le Carré paint her as. She took the tapes for her own purposes.)

Turns out Hannah has transferred them to a sound file and emailed them, but to who, exactly? Salvo tries phoning her to find out but Hannah has decamped on an ‘outing’ to the seaside with her friend Grace, which they thought would give Hannah a good cover and protection, and her phone doesn’t answer.

So Salvo lies on his own in their room back at Mr Hakim’s boarding house, with the radio and TV on, and is astonished when reports start coming in of how an attempt at a coup in Eastern Congo have failed. To his consternation, the TV news shows pictures of Maxie, Anton, Benny, Spider shackled and shuffling under the guard of their captors, along with the twenty or so other mercenaries they were leading. The apparent leader of the coup, the man they call ‘the Enlightener’ (p.367) – ie the Mwazanga – has disappeared.

So the coup failed after all. Salvo calls Hannah’s friend Grace’s mobile to tell Hannah to discover Grace is hysterical, because Hannah was arrested as they walked down the street in broad daylight. At this point it finally sinks into Salvo’s head what he has set himself up against. For the first time he loses the will to fight. Up to then he’d been careful about using his own mobile phone in case it was traced. But it had been a kind of patriotic love for Hannah which had kept him going through all this. Now he turns on and uses his own mobile for the first time, not caring if the call is traced, not caring if he is arrested, beyond caring.

He finds an answerphone message from smooth-talking Philip, who had masterminded events at the mansion, suggesting a meeting.

Climax

And so Salvo goes to the house of posh, silver-haired Foreign Office-type Philip, where he is let in by two tough young bodyguards. As soon as he enters his presence, in the stylish drawing room, Salvo tries to attack him, but is knocked unconscious by his bully boys.

When he comes to, the baddy – suave and posh, English upper class, like most of the baddies in le Carré’s later novels (the ‘worst man in the world’ Roper in The Night Manager, the head of the FO who covers up Tessa Quayle’s murder in The Constant Gardener, and so on) smoothly tells him that Hannah has confessed all and is being deported to Kampala.

It turns out that once the authorities start digging, they’ve discovered that he, Salvo, has a fake identity, presumably concocted all those years ago to protect his priest father from charges of impropriety. Having entered Britain on a false ID, he also is now being deported. Bye, old chap.

Epilogue

The last ten pages are the only good thing in the book. It consists of a long letter written by Salvo to Hannah’s son, Noah, back in the Congo somewhere, describing conditions in the internment camp where Salvo is being kept – surrounded by barbed wire and beaten up by the police from time to time, where he is waiting to be deported.

There’s a letter within a letter as Salvo unexpectedly gets a missive from Haj, the wide boy political leader he overheard being tortured, who gives a last cynical but exuberant vision of contemporary Congo, with its shootings, rapes, corruption and disease. Haj confirms that in the end nothing Salvo or Hannah did had any significance. It was he, Haj, who alerted the authorities to the coup the moment he got home, and thus had it forestalled and defused.

Now there will be elections in Congo, ramshackle and corrupt, ‘they won’t deliver solutions but they’re ours.’ All Hannah and Salvo’s efforts were for nothing.


Blustering explanations

As in all the other late le Carré novels, when the time comes for some kind of explanation of the political situation, what we get instead is the drunken loudmouth bluster of sweary braggarts. (Exactly the same happened in the Night Manager, Our Game and The Tailor of Panama.) Le Carré likes to ‘tackle’ big geopolitical issues but, when push comes to shove, seems to lack the analytical intelligence to write anything interesting about them. Even entry-level explication of the situations is beyond his characters. This is how the organiser of the team flying Salvo to this mystery mansion – Maxie aka the Skipper – explains the situation.

‘We’re sorting the place, Sinclair, for Christ’s sake!’ he expostulated in a pent-up voice. ‘We’re bringing sanity to a fucking madhouse. We’re giving piss-poor, downtrodden people their country back and forcing ’em to tolerate each other, make money get a fucking life. Have you got a problem with that?’ (p.125)

This is pathetically inadequate. But it’s not just Maxie. The ‘delegates’ to the micro-conference, instead of putting reasoned arguments for their respective parties, all sound like swearing teenagers and their ‘discussions’ are just rants. I worked for three years on Channel 4’s international affairs TV show. Nobody who is the leader of a political party or group talks like this.

‘So it’s a coup, right?’ the Dolphin [one of the delegates] demands, in the shrill, hectoring French of a Parisian sophisticate. ‘Peace, prosperity, inclusiveness. But when you strip away the bullshit, we’re grabbing power. Bukavu today, Goma tomorrow, Rwandans out, screw the UN, and Kinshasa can kiss our arses.’ (p.167)


Appalling style

The poshest African

On paper having an African narrate the story might seem a bold experiment. Alas, in the event, the ‘African’ character comes out sounding even more phenomenally posh than the usually posh le Carré product. Not just posh, but out-of-date, stilted posh.

I was surprised to register the presence of a recording angel in the room, for such as I construed him, male. He was ensconced at a desk in the bay window, which I briefly confused with the bay window in our bedroom at Mr Hakim’s. Sunlight was streaming over him, making him divine. (p.375)

I well understand that it is a deliberate ploy to make Salvo’s English more orotund than usual, in order to give him a verbal style, and to convey his odd background – Africa and public school. But it is murder to read.

Our

As in all the late novels, the word ‘our’ used to create the rather smothering sense of a ‘gang’ – our boys, our lady of the night, our saviour, our flying ace. The ‘our’ in these sentences doesn’t refer to the character’s relationship to the other characters. It refers to the character’s relationship with the author and with the reader. Le Carré uses ‘our’ to hustle the reader into reluctant agreement, to shoulder him into being one of ‘the gang’ – like a bully in a pub – you’re one of our boys now, you’re one of our gang now.

Our ace crime reporter… our supergrass (65)… our neophyte secret agent… our great enterprise (93) our great venture (106)… Monsieur Jasper Albin our specialist lawyer from Beançon (144)… our Mission’s self-appointed and rascally protector (144)… our Enlightener (216)… our Redeemer (250).. the Great Coming… our distinguished notary (251)

At the same time it is also tremendously facetious; it tends to be used in an ironic and deliberately grandiose way. It sounds like a Victorian music hall maestro bombastically introducing our very own, the one and only, the stupendous, the once in a lifetime etc:

big Benny our gentle giant (259)… Haj our French-trained Bukavu wide boy and nightclub owner (278)… our skipper Maxie (365) … our gallant Canadian allies (382)…

He seems unable to mention any of the characters without facetiously over-describing them. For example, Salvo identifies one of the voices on the tapes he’s stolen as belonging to ‘none other than my long-time hero and scourge of Penelope’s great newspaper, Lord Brinkley of the sands’ (p.272). ‘None other than…’ It is ostensibly a serious novel treating a serious subject, and yet the narrator consistently treats all his characters like cartoons.

The narrator sounds like a circus ring-master introducing a series of world-beating acts, rather than human beings. Everything feels like it’s shouting at you – the way the characters are over-hyped, the way they swear at each other in all the dialogue, and the narrator’s plentiful use if italics to really emphasise when something important is happening – or just when he’s astonished that people seem to be behaving really badly.

Isn’t the advice they give in all the creative writing courses, Don’t tell – show? Le Carré always tells, repeating again and again how wonderful, eminent, clever, successful etc his characters are, whereas in fact – like Smiley when he actually says something in The Secret Pilgrim – they are all-too-often revealed to be tiresome, self-important bores.

He sets characters up as if they’re about to reveal some especially acute insight into the geopolitical situation, the reader is dying for intelligence and insight, but – all too often what we are actually given is a bunch of characters swearing like chavs at chucking-out time. A lucid introduction to the dire political situation of the Congo would have been useful. Instead we get this summary from Maxie the mercenary leader, telling Salvo how the Congolese have been:

‘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, half the world’s carpet-baggers, their own government in Kinshasa and any minute now they’re going to be fucked by the oil companies … Time they had a break, and we’re the boys to give it to ’em.’

England versus America

I came to this novel from reading Martin Cruz Smith’s brilliant Wolves Eat Dogs. The comparison really highlights how Cruz Smith is a poet, a nimble magician of prose, whereas le Carré’s style has gotten more clotted, more pompous and convoluted, as he’s gotten older.

It is frankly a conundrum to me, observing these events from where I sit today, that as I followed Bridget down the stairs and back onto the pavement of South Audley Street, attired as I was in the garb of a secondary-school master up from the country, and with nothing to attach me to the world except a bunch of bogus business cards and the assurance that I was about to endure unfamiliar perils, I should have counted myself the most blessed fellow in London that night, if not the whole of England, the most intrepid patriot and civil servant, but such was indeed the case. (p.61)

I know the style is meant to reflect the peculiar heritage of the frankly unbelievable character, Salvo. But it must have been painful to write and it is excruciating to read. The comparison of MCS with JLC makes you think the Yanks represent the future of English as a flexible expressive tool and the Brits represent a sclerotic past.

I will not deny that I was a touch nervous following Maxie down the cramped cellar steps, albeit the sight of Spider, Welsh eyes twinkling with honest mischief as he doffed his cap to us in humorous salutation, eased my apprehensions. (p.115)

I read novels less for the plot than for the style, and I thought the style of this book was almost unreadable. Maybe this would be redeemed if the story held up, but the plot is silly, based as it is entirely on the central character’s unbelievable stupidity and naivety, and there isn’t even the saving grace that book offers any insight at all into the very real, ongoing tragedy of the Congo and its long-suffering people.


Credit

The Mission Song by John le Carré was published in 2006 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes from the 2004 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

John Le Carré’s novels

1961 Call for the Dead – Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
1962 A Murder of Quality – Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
1963 The Spy Who Came in from the Cold – Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
1965 The Looking Glass War – A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
1968 A Small Town in Germany – Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
1971 The Naïve and Sentimental Lover
1974 Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy – His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
1977 The Honourable Schoolboy – Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
1979 Smiley’s People – The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
1983 The Little Drummer Girl – A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
1986 A Perfect Spy – Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
1989 The Russia House – Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
1990 The Secret Pilgrim – A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
1993 The Night Manager – Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
1995 Our Game – Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
1996 The Tailor of Panama – Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
1999 Single & Single – Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
2001 The Constant Gardener – Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events up to her murder, with her Old Etonian husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
2003 Absolute Friends – Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’, climaxing with them being shot down like dogs. First part good, second part overblown.
2006 The Mission Song – Ex-public school Bruno ‘Salvo’ Salvador, who happens to be half-Congolese, gives a first-person narrative of an unofficial meeting of three leaders of Congo’s warring factions who have been brought together by a British ‘syndicate’, who are planning to engineer a coup and impose a ‘middle of the road’ leader, ostensibly to bring ‘peace’ – but in reality to plunder the country’s resources. Salvo is there to translate, but ends up hearing more than he should about the brutal behind-the-scenes deals the syndicate and the delegates are cutting, and sets out on a quixotic mission to reveal the ‘truth’.
2008 A Most Wanted Man –
2010 Our Kind of Traitor –
2013 A Delicate Truth –

Juggernaut by Desmond Bagley (1985)

I strolled in the night air over to the rig and stood looking up at the great slab of the transformer. Over one million pounds’ worth of material was being trundled precariously through Africa by a company on the verge of going bankrupt, with a civil war possibly about to erupt in its path, and what the hell was I going to do about it? (p.64)

This is the second of the two novels left in manuscript form at Bagley’s untimely death in 1983, and completed and published with the help of his wife, Joan.

Neil Mannix

It’s a pacey first-person action adventure told by Neil Mannix, an American troubleshooter working for big multinational corporation British Electric. BE have the contract to build a massive power station in the northern, desert region of the (fictional) west African country, Nyala. The first of the vast transformers involved in the build is already being shipped out there, and scheduled to be transported from the docks to the northern destination by the sub-contracting haulage firm, Wyvern Haulage.The flat-bed transporter will be pulled very slowly by three trucks accompanied by supply lorries and cars – quite a convoy. In addition the Nyalan government has tasked a platoon of soldiers in jeeps and lorries, led by a Captain Sadiq to guard it.

Mannix’s job is to cover every aspect of a multi-million pound operation like this, gauging risk and anticipating problems. As the operation gets under way, he discovers this is the haulage company’s first job – though the individual truckers are very experienced, they’ve only just formed the company; and it quickly becomes plain there are problems with the quality of maps, roads and bridges on into the remote desert region where the station is to be built. So a bit of worry…

Civil war

But all this is eclipsed when the political tensions Mannix has also got wind of suddenly erupt into full scale civil war, with the Nyalan air force attacking sections of the army and our heroes (Mannix, the 20 or so riggers and drivers and the 50 or so Nyalan troops) find themselves smack in the middle.

If this was a Frederick Forsyth novel we would be given a panoptic, God-like overview of events, with successive chapters taking us into the presence of the leaders of the coup, the head of the government and army, and a clinical analysis of the power politics involved. If it was a classic Alistair MacLean there would be an enemy agent in among the crew, and a big, game-changing surprise half-way through.

But this old-fashioned novel is a more straightforward adventure in the tradition of Hammond Innes: a competent but fairly ordinary guy is thrust into a perilous situation and has to cope with a series of crises which unfold with no higher scheme or rationale.

Thus almost immediately radio contact is lost with the outside world and Mannix is left in charge of the transporter and crew with no idea what’s going on. The result is a series of chaotic events: the town they are slowly heading towards, Kodowa, is heavily bombed by the Nyalan Air Force. When they arrive they find it on fire with plenty of dead and dying scattered around. A light airplane, damaged by army fire, crash lands in the scrub not far away and turns out to contain Wingstead, the head of the haulage firm who had been determined to fly up to be with his team, though his pilot Max Otterman, is badly injured in the crash.

They make camp just outside Kodowa and are astonished when a nun blunders into their camp, revealing that not far away is a hospital swamped with casualties. They drive the transporter over to the building so that its generator can supply power and their fridge be used to store medicine, but it is not a long-term solution for either party.

A mobile hospital

In a slightly bizarre turn of events, the nun and black doctor in charge say there’s another hospital 50 miles north – along the route the transporter is taking anyway – could the rig itself and the accompanying tractors and trucks carry the hospital’s 100 patients and nurses and supplies to it? After a hurried conference our guys say yes and so the sick and dying are arranged over the transporter, tractors, lorries, cars etc and the now rather odd-looking convoy slowly lumbers off north. Only to discover the once remaining bridge between them and the northern hospital has been bombed and the river is impassable.

More discussions and they decide to turn south back to the bombed-out town and then west back into the edge of the jungle towards a fork on the big local river which forms the border with the neighbouring country. For two reasons: The village there has cotton warehouses which could be converted into some kind of building for the sick; our crew would then have the option of getting across the river and eventually being repatriated to Blighty.

Characters and confrontations

Unlike Night of Error there’s quite a large cast of characters, maybe 40 named people, who are initially a little hard to keep track of, but certain key players emerge. Mannix develops tremendous respect for the captain in charge of the Nyalan army unit assigned to protect them, Captain Sadiq; for the black hospital doctor, Dr Katabisirua (‘a man dedicated and inspired’ p.306), and for the tough-minded nun, Sister Ursula, who is assisting him.

He learns which of the dozen or so crew he can trust and which are twisters. Five crew rebel against Mannix’s decisions and leadership and, after harsh words, are sacked and told to make their own way to freedom. They leave after stealing some supplies but the next day four come crawling back. One returnee takes Mannix aside to tell him that the tough Irishman, McGrath, tracked them down, harangued them to return and, when the dissident ringleader refused, shot him dead on the spot. Mannix confronts McGrath about it and after some shouting, decides uneasily it’s better to have him working for the team than against.

Some oil riggers – two Americans, some Russians, a French – isolated by the bombed town and blown-up bridge attach themselves to the convoy. Mannix is forced to confront one of them, the angry and violent Russ Burns. In a showdown scene the two are squaring up for a fight in front of the rest of the men when McGrath appears out of nowhere, pushes Burns back against the transporter and starts to cut his throat until Burns swears allegiance to Mannix. Mannix has mixed feelings: McGrath is dangerous; but it’s very handy having him as his enforcer.

Juggernaut

All the time they are managing the slow (ten miles an hour or less) progress of the transporter covered with about 100 sick patients in makeshift beds under makeshift awnings, and slowly this begins to have a strange effect. In the background the bush telegraph circulates among the natives rumours of the giant lorry with a vast load, covered in sick people and white magicians performing healing and curing; and gradually the team acquires a following of blacks, of poor, homeless men, women and children who accompany the convoy on its tortuous route, stopping and camping when they camp, waking and moving on when they do.

The transporter comes to acquire a kind of magical importance, not only for the natives, but even for Mannix and his team: it becomes a psychological fetish, a symbol that will see them safe through the harrowing chaos of civil war. As one of the characters points out, rather like one of the big wheeled carts of the Indian god Juggernaut (Jagannath), under which his crazed devotees threw themselves to be crushed to death.

The rebels

The civil war finally catches up with them and the convoy is seized by rebel army forces. About fifty men and two Saracen armoured cars led by a callous Colonel Maksa – the kind of African soldier who wears enormous shades and enjoys intimidating people. Just before their arrival Captain Sadiq and his men withdraw silently into the jungle and Mannix tells his people to act innocent as the rebels enter the camp. Despite this the soldiers aggressively round everyone up into the cotton warehouse, bullying and poking the sick on the transporter – we later learn they kick to death Max the wounded pilot. They are brutal. It is scary. Mannix notices McGrath has managed to elude the round-up.

Colonel Maksa wants to know where Sadiq and his men are, and questions each one of the crew in turn. When the argumentative Russ Burns foolishly says he won’t be pushed about by some goddam rebel, Maksa simply shoots his head off. A nun faints, one of his crew throws up, Mannix is petrified with fear. At that moment McGrath appears, shoots Maksa and, in the confusion, the only soldier accompanying Maksa inside the warehouse is overpowered and knocked unconscious.

Now McGrath comes into his own, planning how they’ll lure the remaining officers into the warehouse by pretending to be Maksa, and take them out one by one. Then they’ll fan out across the compound to take on the soldiers, while he and one of the crew take one of the tractors (whose back panels are made of steel and concrete to give them ballast, making them more effective at pulling the transporter) and drive it backwards towards the remaining Saracen holding the small nearby bridge.

McGrath had liaised with Sadiq so that at an arranged signal Sadiq’s men will begin lobbing mortars and firing into the rebel troops. And this is what happens – though it turns out more confused and chaotic than it sounds, with both sides firing wildly and mortars going off all over the place. But McGrath does manage to ram the 10 ton Saracen with the 40 ton towing tractor, Sadiq’s mortar and gunfire decimates the rebel soldiers who, deprived of any officers (lying unconscious and trussed up in the warehouse) turn tail and run across the bridge and off west.

In the morning our guys bury the dead – soldiers, three of our crew, some of the African patients, the murdered pilot. Then they hook up the damn transporter, tend to the patients still positioned all over it and in the lorries, and set off at the customary crawl along the road west, towards the river and the border followed, as usual, by the crowds of native worshippers. These had melted into the forest when the soldiers came; now they reappear to worship their god, Juggernaut.

About page 240 of this 320-page book the bizarre caravanserai finally arrives at the junction of rivers, so wide it looks like a lake. Mannix and the other leaders discuss with some locals the best way to cross into the neighbouring country. They think their troubles are over…

The raft

They aren’t. Turns out the official ferry is a few miles downriver and in the hands of the rebels. The road they’ve followed leads down to a primitive pontoon at the riverside. Back along the way is a general store run by a scared local who tells them about the nearby dumps of old oil cans, tyres, bits and bobs, along with a repair shop for fixing the pontoon and boats which run from it.

Sizing up all the resources, Mannix gets excited: with boyish enthusiasm he sketches out to his audience of truckers, riggers, mechanics, electricians and fixers how they could probably create a raft from the drums, rope, and planks and use it to seize the proper ferry by attacking at night from the river. Once secured, the ferry could take the crew and all the patients across the wide river to freedom. What, about it lads? Shall we give it a go? They say yes and set about designing and building a raft and the text is full of details about the design, buoyancy calculations, raw materials, fitting and shaping and hammering and roping together which are involved.

Men working together as a team. Male camaraderie. Problems arise, are discussed and solved; relevant experts make suggestions and improvements to what turns into a production line. Technical specifications, tools, processes for building and assembling. The text conveys the simple warm feeling of men working together on a technical task…

Manliness

Most novels feature novelists, writers, journalists and associated soft trades. But this adventure yarn features ‘real men’: Mannix is an action man, his job to sort out everything that can happen on dangerous and demanding assignments in extreme environments and the men he’s working with are tougher than him, physically and mentally – truckers, oil riggers, soldiers, good at fixing and repairing heavy machinery, able to look after themselves in a fight.

When the crisis strikes Mannix appoints himself top dog and has no hesitation confronting the rebel soldiers, stroppy civilians, and beating down claimants to his throne among his crew. He is very much the alpha male, as the big confrontations with McGrath and Burns and sundry smaller fry continually affirm.

From one point of view it is like a wildlife documentary about a pack of lions or other big predators: only by continually facing down his rivals can the alpha male establish and keep his position. Seen this way the narrative has almost zoological or anthropological interest.

Key among all these rivalries is the ambiguous relationship which grows between him and McGrath, ‘the odd, unwanted rapport that I sometimes felt between us…’ (p.259), ‘the common thread that sometimes linked our thoughts and actions’ (p.292).

The latter is clearly no ordinary trucker and, in his several confrontations with this laconic and violent man, it dawns on Mannix that the Irishman is on the run from ‘the Troubles’, probably a former member of the IRA. Certainly his fearlessness allows McGrath to take complete control during the firefight with the rebels, though (sardonically) acknowledging Mannix’s ultimate authority. His plan and his fearlessness win the day – but leaving Mannix to wonder how and when McGrath will finally rebel, and whether a violent confrontation with this scary man can be avoided…

It dawned on me that Mannix’s respect for McGrath’s total ability but fear of his amorality has a Freudian or psychological aspect: McGrath is Mannix’s id, the unstoppable, amoral, super-violent man Mannix could become, or deep down, is; and on the other side is his superego, the quiet capable figure of the African doctor, Dr Katabisirua, avoiding all conflict, superhumanly committed to his patients. But it’s the Mannix-McGrath dynamic and its strange ambivalence which drives the book:

Despite myself I felt a nagging touch of understanding of McGrath and his ruthlessness. He’d manoeuvred us into doing the one thing he knew best; fighting and killing. He’d done it all for the most selfish of reasons, and without compunction. And yet he was brave, efficient and vital to our cause… I would never know if he had killed Ron Jones, but the worst of it, and the thing that filled me with contempt for myself as well as for him, was that I didn’t care. I prayed that I wouldn’t become any more like him. (p.233)

In fact McGrath embodies the manly virtues of total efficiency in the name of killing, maiming and triumphing over rivals, which are vital to humans to survive situations of war and chaos – but must be risen above, expunged and repressed, if the hero is to return to ‘civilised’ society.

McGrath was a maverick, intelligent, sound in military thinking and utterly without fear. I felt that he might be a useful man to have about in a war, but perhaps on the first day of peace he ought to be shot without mercy… (p.233)

Death of the juggernaut

Our boys finish making a raft big enough to carry a lorry – the one belonging to the French man they picked up outside Kodowa – which has a load of gelignite aboard. In the dead of night they float the raft down to the ferry station, approaching from the river and taking the (it turns out) handful of disorganised rebels by surprise, driving them off and seizing control. They free the pilots of the ferry from their makeshift prison in a shed, and over the next few hours bring the enormous transporter-cum-hospital lumbering round by road from its hiding place, along with its crowd of devotees.

For the next few hours they load onto the ferry all the patients, the nuns and nurses and doctors and supplies, and watch it set off on the several mile journey across this wide wide stretch of African river to the free country on the other side. It’s at this moment that another group of rebel soldiers attack, shooting mortars and firing guns at the ferry though, mercifully, it is just out of range.

But they capture Mannix and our boys and overpower Sadiq and his men. How are they going to get out of this one? It’s at this moment that the unstoppable Principle of Action McGrath appears behind the wheel of the gelignite lorry, driving it off the ferry and through the mass of confused soldiers, while Mannix and others attack and overpower the rebel officers. Up through the shooting soldiers McGrath drives to the edge of the road overlooking the ferry point where the transporter is parked and where the lorry explodes. The blast fatally undermines the poor local road which gives way and the enormous transporter with its vast transformer slowly tips sideways and then comes tumbling, rolling over and over downhill onto the panicking soldiers, crushing them to a pulp, just like the original Juggernaut, the angry god of vengeance, crushes his devotees in his native India.

As the dust settles Mannix realises he and most of his crew are alive; most of the rebel soldiers are dead, as is their leader. And McGrath himself, the spirit of Total Violence which must be exploited but then dismissed before Civilisation can recommence, is also obliterated.

Before the big ferry set sail its pilots showed off their toy, a six-wheel amphibious truck or DUKW. Mannix rounds up all the survivors into the DUKW and they set off across the river to freedom.


Common decency

This unreconstructed, unquestioning attitude to masculinity has a dated, not unpleasantly old fashioned feel.

But maybe the biggest thing which sets it apart from more modern thrillers is the simple acceptance of the notion of decency among the male leads. Mannix beats up Russ for referring to the natives as ‘niggers’ and bans all insulting language. He and the haulage boss, Wingstead, unquestioningly go to the  aid of the hospital, put their supplies, food and fridge at the disposal of the local doctor: race doesn’t enter the picture, there is an obvious humanitarian need and these men unhesitatingly go to help.

More modern thrillers (books and movies) revel in the way these moral values have collapsed, enjoy describing the most cynical betrayals possible, celebrate treachery, corruption, decadence, unpleasantness and evil. The terrifying 2003 movie Tears of the Sun, set in Nigeria during a coup, portrays rape, torture and dismemberment. What makes Juggernaut, set in a similar situation, feel so old fashioned is – despite some of the awful scenes it depicts – the fundamental decency and moral innocence of its lead figures.

Map

A lot of time in the text is spent discussing the options of where the convoy should go next, north, west, to which town, crossing which rivers etc. I appreciate Nyala is a fictional country but a map would have been good.

Novels about African coups

  • A Man of The People (1966) by Chinua Achebe ends with a coup
  • The Dogs of War (1974) by Frederick Forsyth
  • The Coup by (1978) John Updike

Related links

Fontana paperback edition of Juggernaut

Fontana paperback edition of Juggernaut

Bagley’s books

1963 The Golden Keel – South African boatbuilder Peter ‘Hal’ Halloran leads a motley crew to retrieve treasure hidden in the Italian mountains by partisans during WWII, planning to smuggle it out of Italy and back to SA as the golden keel of a boat he’s built for the purpose.
1965 High Citadel – Pilot Tim O’Hara leads the passengers of a charter flight crash-landed in the Andes in holding off attacking communists.
1966 Wyatt’s Hurricane – A motley crew of civilians led by meteorologist David Wyatt are caught up in a civil war on the fictional island of San Fernandes just as a hurricane strikes.
1967 Landslide – Tough Canadian geologist Bob Boyd nearly died in a car wreck ten years ago. Now he returns to the small town in British Columbia where it happened to uncover long-buried crimes and contemporary skulduggery.
1968 The Vivero Letter – ‘Grey’ accountant Jeremy Wheale leads an archaeology expedition to recover lost Mayan gold and ends up with more adventure than he bargained for as the Mafia try to muscle in.
1969 The Spoilers – Heroin specialist Nick Warren assembles a motley crew of specialists to help him break up a big drug-smuggling gang in Iraq.

1970 Running Blind – British secret agent Alan Stewart and girlfriend fend off KGB killers, CIA assassins and traitors on their own side while on the run across the bleak landscape of Iceland.
1971 The Freedom Trap – British agent Owen Stannard poses as a crook to get sent to prison and infiltrate The Scarperers, a gang which frees convicts from gaol but who turn out to be part of a spy network.
1973 The Tightrope Men – Advertising director Giles Denison goes to bed in London and wakes up in someone else’s body in Norway, having become a pawn in the complex plans of various espionage agencies to get their hands on vital secret weapon technology.
1975 The Snow Tiger – Ian Ballard is a key witness in the long formal Inquiry set up to investigate the massive avalanche which devastated the small New Zealand mining town of Hukahoronui.
1977 The Enemy – British Intelligence agent Malcolm Jaggard gets drawn personally and professionally into the secret past of industrialist George Ashton, amid Whitehall power games which climax in disaster at an experimental germ warfare station on an isolated Scottish island.
1978 Flyaway – Security consultant Max Stafford becomes mixed up in Paul Billson’s quixotic quest to find his father’s plane which crashed in the Sahara 40 years earlier, a quest involving extensive travel around North Africa with the charismatic American desert expert, Luke Byrne, before the secret is revealed.

1980 Bahama Crisis – Bahamas hotelier Tom Mangan copes with a series of disastrous misfortunes until he begins to realise they’re all part of a political plot to undermine the entire Bahamas tourist industry and ends up playing a key role in bringing the conspirators to justice.
1982 Windfall – Max Stafford, the protagonist of Bagley’s 1978 novel Flyaway, gets involved in a complex plot to redirect the fortune of a dead South African smuggler into a secret operation to arm groups planning to subvert Kenya, a plot complicated by the fact that an American security firm boss is simultaneously running his own scam to steal some of the fortune, and that one of the key conspirators is married to one of Stafford’s old flames.
1984 Night Of Error – Oceanographer Mike Trevelyan joins a boatload of old soldiers, a millionaire and his daughter to go looking for a treasure in rare minerals on the Pacific Ocean floor, a treasure two men have already died for – including Mike’s no-good brother – and which a rival group of baddies will stop at nothing to claim for themselves, all leading to a hair-raising climax as goodies and baddies are caught up in a huge underwater volcanic eruption.
1985 Juggernaut – Neil Mannix is the trouble shooter employed by British Electric to safeguard a vast transformer being carried on a huge flat-bed truck – the juggernaut of the title – across the (fictional) African country of Nyala towards the location of a flagship new power station, when a civil war breaks out and all hell breaks loose.

Dirty Story by Eric Ambler (1967)

‘You’re a disgusting creature, Mr Simpson. Your life is nothing but a long, dirty story.’ (p.13)

Ambler is fond of featuring characters in more than one novel. The KGB agent Andreas Zaleshof plays a key role in two of the pre-War novels, and the head of Turkish security, Colonel Haki, appears in three. But this is the most comprehensive repeat, for Dirty Story is the second book to be narrated in its entirety by the same person – the shabby conman Arthur Abdel Simpson, who first appeared in The Light of Day.

Plot

In a previous post I mentioned the importance of bureaucratic procedures to Ambler’s plots. This one continues Arthur Simpson’s problems with his out-of-date and non-renewable Egyptian passport, the one which got him into trouble in The Light of Day. Refused a new British passport, Arthur contacts a provider of forged passports in Athens (where he lives) and, optimistically, promises to pay the large fee. When he fails to extract the money out of the rich old lady who rents him the car in which he operates as guide and driver to tourists, the passport-forger offers him a job to pay off the debt. A European film crew is arriving in Athens to shoot porn movies among Greece’s ancient ruins: Arthur can make the money to buy the passport by procuring pretty young men and women to star in the films, as well as managing other practicalities.

With his knowledge of Athens’ lowlife this is no problem for Arthur who makes a deal with a local madam, gets everything up and running for the crew, then slips off to fit in a weekend tourist-guide job. When he returns the sheepdip has hit the fan, because one particular member of the film crew – Goutard – has so outraged the madam that she has called her friends in the police. The (intimidating) passport forger has been tasked with hussling Goutard and Arthur out of the country to pacify everyone. Now Arthur has his passport alright – but he is being kicked out of his country: forced to leave his flat, belongings and (sort of) wife.

Processes and procedures

I thought the plot would kick in at some point, but for fifty more pages the plot largely is a summary of Simpson’s legal and bureaucractic problems. The pair are taken out to a departing tramp steamer but the emphasis is on the legal arrangements by which they sign on to the crew. When the steamer limps into Djibouti for repairs, the text becomes entirely about the various legal options open to them, about the validity of their visas, the length of stay they’re allowed, which countries the police will deport them to, and so on.

They are hoping to be kept on until the boat docks in Lourenço Marques, but Goutard assaults the steamer’s captain who promptly ‘sacks’ them from the ship’s crew. The procedural implications of this are described in much greater detail than the actual incident as Ambler lists the payoff they receive, the severance contract they have to sign and so on. Simpson – and the text – now spend some time considering the options available to him, all of which are hedged round by legal, passport, visa and work permit restrictions, which are explored in some detail.

Eventually, the plot moves forward as Goutard has met in a bar one ‘Major’ Kinck who tells them all about the mining of rare metals in Africa. On the steamer one drunk night, Simpson had let his imagination run wild, making up stories about his daring exploits in the British Army during World War Two. Now, to his horror, he discovers Goutard has suggested to Kinck that he and Arthur sign up as mercenaries to Kinck’s organisation – the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC). Again, the chapter that deals with this goes into minute detail about the contract they sign, the currency and payment options, the visas they are issued with, even the next-of-kin clauses, as well as the uniforms, badges and so on.

From one angle, the ‘plot’ could be said to consist of a sequence of bureaucratic, legal and procedural wrangles to which a ‘character’, an actual human being, is only accidentally attached.

Part two

It is only over half way into the book that the real ‘story’ becomes clear.  Kinck has been hanging round Djibouti recruiting a ragtag collection of half a dozen white men who have all been associated with the armies of their countries. They all sign the contract to work for SMACC and fly with Kinck to an African country. Arthur (and Ambler) give it the fictitious name of Mahindi.

Here they go straight to a mining camp and are briefed. When the neighbouring African nations of Mahindi and Ugazi gained independence there was an anomaly at a river which snakes between the countries, but where Europeans defined the boundary as a straight line. It would make better sense for the bit of territory sticking out beyond the line but this side of the river to be given to Mahindi; and the bit in the bend beneath to be restored to Ugazi.

Peaceful negotiations have been meandering on about this for years. Suddenly the Ugazi delegation have cut off negotations. This is because a European corporation has discovered some very rare precious minerals in just this stretch of land. Arthur has got caught up in a conspiracy for a dozen or so white mercenaries to lead a couple of lorryloads of Mahindi soldiers and seize the piece of land with the precious minerals in, while the Mahindi government magnanimously restores their spur of (worthless) land to Ugazi.

There are a few complications (one of the mercenaries, Willens, turns out to have contacts with the other side and persuades Arthur to betray his colleagues for the promise of cash), but most of the second half of the text describes the training and preparation for this incursion and Arthur’s characteristic attempts to avoid all responsiblity and danger, quite amusingly.

However, the incursion, when it finally comes, is not so amusing with quite a few black soldiers being killed and dismembered by Uzi machine guns or mortar rounds. Nobody was killed in The Light of Day which maintained a light comic tone through even the most nailbiting scenes. This story features quite a few African casualties a) in the story, for the greed of Europeans b) in the metatext, for the entertainment of us European readers. On both levels, it made me uneasy.

The SMACC mercenaries successfully invade and secure the Ugazi enclave. Arthur’s treachery to his colleagues is revealed and he and Willens make a tense getaway by boat. In the final few pages Arthur ponders the cynicism of the big corporations and nations: the two countries have agreed to do a deal, to get their corporations to co-operate and share the mining profits. Those who died did so foolishly in what amounted to a cynical business deal.

In the confusion of battle, Arthur just happens to have stolen a bunch of passports he found in the police headquarters of the captured town. In the final pages he heads off to Tangier to make a living selling them and, yes, maybe he will set up in his own right as a forger of fake passports.

Thus, both the Arthur Simpson novels are linked by this golden thread of passports and their problems.

Dramatis personae

  • Arthur Abdel Simpson, rogue and anti-hero
  • Nicki – his wife, a belly-dancer
  • H. Carter Gavin – the British Vice-Consul who refuses him a passport
  • Mrs Karadontis – the old lady who loans Arthur the car he drives tourists round in
  • Madame Irma – brothel-keeper
  • Gennadiou – fixer of forged passports
  • Hayek – leader of the polyglot porn movie company
  • Yves Goutard – short-tempered member of the porn movie crew who gets himself and Arthur into trouble
  • Captain Van Bunnen – captain of the tramp steamer which takes them down the African coast
  • Jean-Baptiste Kinck – recruits them as mercenaries acting for the Société Minière et Métallurgique de l’Afrique Centrale (SMMAC), mining company working inside Mahindi
  • Adrian Willens – one of the mercenaries who turns out to be working for the UMAD, the mining company working with the Ugazi government
  • Barbara Willens – his good-looking wife who first talks Arthur into working with them ie to betray his mercenary colleagues to the enemy
  • Troppmann – leader of the SMMAC mercenaries
  • Velay – French leader of the UMAD opposition, who tries to do a deal with his opposite numbers

Related links

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

1970s Fontana paperback cover of Dirty Story

Eric Ambler’s novels

  • The Dark Frontier (1936) British scientist gets caught up in a revolution in an East European country while trying to find and destroy the secret of the first atomic bomb. Over-the-top parody.
  • Uncommon Danger (1937) British journalist Kenton gets mixed up with the smuggling of Russian plans to invade Romania and seize its oil, in which the Russian or KGB agent Zaleshoff is the good guy against a freelance agent, Saridza, working for an unscrupulous western oil company. Cartoony.
  • Epitaph for a Spy (1938) Hungarian refugee and language teacher Josef Vadassy, on holiday in the south of France, is wrongfully accused of being a spy and is given three days by the police to help them find the real agent among a small group of eccentric hotel guests. Country house murder.
  • Cause for Alarm (1938) Engineer Nick Marlow is hired to run the Milan office of a British engineering company which is supplying the Italian government with munitions equipment, only to be plunged into a world of espionage, counter-espionage, and then forced to go on the run from the sinister Italian Gestapo, aided by Zaleshoff, the KGB agent from Danger. Persuasive.
  • The Mask of Dimitrios (1939) Detective writer Charles Latimer sets out on a quest to find the true story behind the dead gangster, Dimitrios Makropoulos, whose dossier he is shown by the head of Istanbul police, discovering more than he bargained for in the process.
  • Journey into Fear (1940) The war has begun and our enemies have hired an assassin to kill Mr Graham, the English engineer who is helping to upgrade the Turkish fleet. The head of Turkish security gets Graham a berth on a steamer heading to Italy but the enemy agent has followed him. Possibly the best of the six.

  • Judgment on Deltchev (1952) Playwright Foster is sent by a newspaper to report on the show trial of a fallen politician, Deltchev, in an unnamed East European country, and gets caught up in a sinister and far-reaching conspiracy.
  • The Schirmer Inheritance (1953) Young American lawyer George Carey is tasked with finding relatives who may be eligible to receive the large inheritance of an old lady who died without heirs. Because she comes of immigrant stock the task takes him on a tour of European archives – in Paris, Cologne, Geneva, Athens, Salonika – where he discovers the legacy of the Nazis lingering on into the murky world of post-War Greek politics.
  • The Night-Comers (1956) Engineer Steve Fraser is preparing to leave the newly independent Dutch colony of Sunda after a three-year project when he and his Eurasian girlfriend get caught up in a military coup. Trapped by the rebels in their apartment because it is in the same building as the strategically-important radio station, they witness at first hand the machinations of the plotters and slowly realise that all is not what it seems.
  • Passage of Arms (1959) An American couple on a Far East cruise, naively agree to front what appears to be a small and simple, one-off gun-smuggling operation, but end up getting into serious trouble. A thorough and persuasive and surprisingly light-hearted fiction, the least spy-ish and maybe the best Ambler novel so far.
  • The Light of Day (1962) Small-time con man Arthur Simpson gets caught up in a plan by professional thieves to steal jewels from the famous Seraglio Museum in Istanbul, all the time acting as an inside man for the Turkish authorities. An enjoyable comedy-thriller.
  • A Kind of Anger (1964) Journalist Piet Maas is tasked with tracking down a beautiful woman who is the only witness to the murder of an exiled Iraqi colonel in a remote villa in Switzerland, and finds himself lured into a dangerous game of selling information about a political conspiracy to the highest bidder.
  • Dirty Story (1967) Forced to flee Greece in a hurry when a porn movie project goes bad, shabby con man Arthur Simpson (who we first met in The Light of Day) takes ship through Suez to the East Coast of Africa, where he finds himself enrolled as a mercenary in a small war about mineral rights.
  • The Intercom Conspiracy (1969) Two East European intelligence chiefs conceive a money-making scam. They buy a tiny Swiss magazine and start publishing genuine intelligence reports, which publicise American, Soviet, British and NATO secrets. All those countries’ security forces fall over themselves to discover the source of the leaks and, after ineffectually threatening the hapless editor of the magazine, buy it from the colonels for a cool $500,000. Another amusing comedy-thriller.
  • The Levanter (1972) Middle Eastern industrialist Michael Howell is forced much against his will to collaborate with a Palestinian terror group planning a major atrocity, while he and his mistress frantically try to find a way out of his plight.
  • Doctor Frigo (1974) Latino doctor Ernesto Castillo is ‘persuaded’ by French security agents to become physician to political exiles from his Latin American homeland who are planning a coup, and struggles hard to maintain his professional standards and pride in light of some nasty revelations. A very enjoyable comedy thriller.
  • Send No More Roses (1977) Paul Firman narrates this strangely frustrating account of his meeting at the Villa Lipp with an academic obsessed with exposing him as the head of a multinational tax avoidance and blackmailing operation until – apparently – his boss intervenes to try and ‘liquidate’ them all, in a half-hearted attempt which completely fails, and leaves Firman in the last pages, on a Caribbean island putting the finishing touches to this narrative, designed to rebut the professor’s damning (and largely fictional) account of his criminal activities. What?
  • The Care of Time (1981) – Ex-CIA agent-turned-writer, Robert Halliday, finds himself chosen by a shadowy Middle Eastern fixer to help out with a very elaborate scam involving a mad Arab sheikh, an underground bunker, germ warfare experiments and a fake TV interview. Typically complex, typically odd.

The Heart of The Matter by Graham Greene (1948)

Despair is the price one pays for setting oneself an impossible aim. It is, one is told, the unforgiveable sin, but it is a sin the corrupt or evil man never practises. He always has hope. He never reaches the freezing-point of knowing absolute failure. Only the man of goodwill carries always in his heart this capacity for damnation. (p.60)

Background

During World War II Greene was recruited by British Secret Intelligence (later MI6) and sent to Freetown, capital of Sierra Leone, from 1942 to 1943, to spy on Axis activity in the region. He used this location as the setting for what many people think is his ‘finest’ novel.

Overview

This book has a completely different feel from its immediate predecessor, the ‘entertainment’  or surrealist thriller, The Ministry of Fear (1943) which was, frankly, a shambles.

The Heart of The Matter moves slowly and realistically, building up our sympathy with a handful of carefully contructed characters through an accumulation of psychological insights, and depicting the reality of the humid African setting through an accumulation of perceptive details.

He stood quietly for a while breathing in the heavy smell of the sea. Within half a mile of him a whole convoy lay at anchor, but all he could detect were the long shadow of the depôt ship and a scatter of small red lights as though a street were up: he could hear nothing from the water but the water itself, slapping against the jetties. The magic of this place never failed him: here he kept his foothold on the very edge of a strange continent. (1983 Penguin paperback edition, p.37)

The Heart of The Matter

Major Henry Scobie, ‘a squat grey-haired man’, is Assistant Commissioner of Police in the capital of the unnamed West African country, has been been there for 15 long, hot, demoralising years. Honest and upright he is therefore the target of malicious gossip and criticism. He is hard on himself, with a permanent sense of guilt for having persuaded his wife – ‘poor Louise’ – to come to this hell-hole and then doing little or nothing to gain promotion and a move away.

Their only child, a daughter, died age nine back in England. People laugh at his wife behind her back, calling her ‘Literary Louise’ and she appears to be clinically depressed, unable to get out of bed, frequently weeping and needing constant reassurance from her beloved ‘Ticki’, her nickame for Scobie. She is desperate to escape, to go to her imagined El Dorado of South Africa. They love each other and hate each other and are stuck with each other.

This miserable marriage is painted with an abundance of psychologically acute detail.

A newcomer to the colony, podgy inexperienced Wilson almost immediately ‘falls in love’ with Louise and combines clumsy attempts to seduce her with a steadily growing hatred of Scobie, especially after the older man witnesses him in several compromising situations: Wilson can’t forgive Scobie for having seen him cry.

As the novel opens, the current Commissioner retires and Scobie is passed over for promotion, adding to his wife’s misery. Scobie tries to borrow money to pay his wife’s passage to South Africa, but the bank turn him down. And he breaks all the rules by taking pity on a Portuguese merchant captain who was hiding a letter to his daughter in Germany. Scobie finds it, confiscates it, should hand it in and report the captain: instead he burns it. Scobie’s decline is made of a series of small and forgiveable transgressions like this. The heroes of Shakespeare’s tragedies are each said to have one fatal flaw. Scobie’s is his sense of pity.

Eventually, out of pity for his miserable wife, Scobie borrows £200 from the slippery Syrian mechant, Yusef and is able to despatch Louise to South Africa. But the loan, of course, has consequences. There is a rival Syrian merchant Tallit, and soon his spies are spreading rumours that Scobie has accepted bribes. Yusef pulls the trick of telling Scobie Tallit is smuggling diamonds out on the next neutral ship. When the ship is searched the diamonds are found; but slowly it emerges that Yusef planted them in order to implicate his rival. The real result is that Tallit complains to the authorities and a Colonial Administrator comes to visit for what is, although everso British and polite, in effect an interrogation of Scobie about the affair. He robustly admits his friendship with Yusef, says he knows both are liars scheming against each other, neither has bribed him etc. But his integrity has, for the first time in  his career, been questioned.

The next act in this tragedy is Scobie being sent to the border with the neighbouring colony to receive the survivors of a merchant ship which has been sunk by Germans. It is a harrowing scene: they have been in an open boat for 40 days. Scobie finds himself having to pretend to be the father of a poor little boy who is on his death-bed, to give him some last moments of reassurance. Pity, again.

The whole book is like that. Although it’s about a simple adulterous affair, almost every scene seems to involve moments when the author can comment about the extremes of human experience, of life and death and pain and despair. One of the survivors is a young woman, Helen Rolt, newly married, whose husband was drowned. Once they’re shipped back to the capital Scobie makes a point of checking up on all of them but finds himself drawn to the young woman.

Book Two describes with a multitude of persuasive detail, how he slowly, painfully falls in love with this scrawny immature woman . On one visit she talks about her childhood and he finds himself speaking honestly about his feelings for the first time in years. Suddenly, without planning it, they are kissing. They sleep together. They are having an affair. So far so ordinary, so suburban.

What makes it Greene is that Scobie makes promises to look after her, to make her happy and he takes these promises with pathological seriousness. Of course the colony vultures are gathering in the shape of the jealous Wilson who, we discover, is actually some kind of spy sent out from London (a kind of ironic self-portrait by the author, who played this role in Freetown?).

The final parts of the tragedy slot into place when Scobie’s wife unexpectedly (and implausibly) announces she is returning from South Africa. She realises her mistakes, selfishness etc, things will be different this time. Well, they certainly will because instead of doing the sensible thing and chucking in the affair with Helen (which she actually suggests he do) – or splitting up with his wife and committing to Helen – he does neither and places himself in what you could call the Optimum Graham Greene position: a situation where he can revel in an orgy of despair because he has made promises to two people which he cannot keep.

Enter the Catholic Voodoo when Louise insists they celebrate her return by going to communion. Before which you must, as a Catholic, have had full and complete confession of your sins. But Scobie puts off going, then finds that he cannot properly repent. He (and the author) use the casuistry (‘a specious, deceptive, or oversubtle reasoning, especially in questions of morality’) that by breaking his promise to help Helen he will somehow be abandoning her to ‘despair’ and (pathetically) to the advances of various seedy single men in the colony. Hmm.

Either you accept that a man like Scobie feels bound by this rather silly promise even if it means his death; or you feel that Greene is contriving, just this side of plausibility, a scenario which has been designed solely to justify the very heavy freight of moralising which the last pages of the novel carry.

For in the final 30 or 40 pages Greene revels in showing us a man ‘at the end of  his tether’, torn between two women to whom he has made what he regards as unbreakable vows, and forced (so he says) to lie to his God. This unleashes a torrent of ripe Greeniana:

When he came out of the [confession] box it seemed to Scobie that for the first time his footsteps had taken him out of sight of hope. There was no hope anywhere he turned his eyes: the dead figure of the God upon the cross, the plaster Virgin, the hideous stations representing a series of events that had happened a long time ago. It seemed to him that he had only left for his exploration the territory of despair. (p.222)

Thus, not properly confessed, he allows his wife to take him to Mass and to take the wafer of bread and wine in the full knowledge that, according to Catholic theology, he is damning himself to eternal hellfire. This scene is an operatic farrago of self-pity, as Scobie insists that he stay loyal to his vow to Helen, taken out of pity for her, watches the priest’s skirts moving closer with horrified clarity, feels his mouth go dry, and then makes the fatal gestures etc.

In the last sections Greene rubs Scobie’s face in the dirt.

  • Out of the blue it is announced that he will be promoted to Commissioner after all ie it was all unecessary: it is what Louise wanted so he need never have sent her away, need never have been tempted and fallen with Helen etc.
  • Helen herself fails to understand the sacrifice he has made for her. She doesn’t at all believe his Catholic hoodoo, saying he is free to leave her any time (as he, of course, is). Helen becomes the mouthpiece, within the text, of the sceptical reader, allowing Greene to anticipate criticisms of the situation and rebut them via Scobie.
  • And finally, he comes to distrust his loyal houseboy of 15 years, Ali, and half-knowingly allows the slimy Yusef to arrange for him to be murdered in the dirty wharf at night. Finding his body drills in to Scobie’s mind the depths to which he has fallen, how evil he has become.

Oh God, he thought, I’ve killed you: you’ve served me all these years and I’ve killed you at the end of them. (p.247)

He becomes, in his own mind, an infection, a disease. (Exactly the metaphor frequently used by the protagonists of the early novels and especially by the whisky priest about himself in The Power and the Glory).

I’m carrying my corruption around with me. It’s the coating of my stomach… I can’t bear to see suffering, and I cause it all the time. I want to get out, get out. (pp.232-3)

He foresees only one end, the ultimate sin for a Catholic, the sin of despair and the unforgiveable act of self-murder. The last pages chronicle Scobie’s methodical way of going about faking the symptoms of angina, to the doctor, to his wife, to his boss and in the diary which he knows will be examined by the coroner and insurance investigator.

O God, he prayed, his hands dripping over the wheel, kill me now, now. My God, you’ll never have more complete contrition. What a mess I am. I carry suffering with me like a body smell. Kill me. Put an end to me. Vermin don’t have to exterminate themselves. Kill me. Now. Now. Now (p.252)

There follows the hallucinatory last day and hours and minutes of the suicide as he realises he is seeing everything, saying everything, smelling and touching and feeling everything, for the last time. He bids his wife goodnight, makes his last – deliberately unfinished – entry in  his diary, and takes the overdose of painkillers, collapses and dies.

Postscript

In a technique he experimented with in the early novels and perfected in The Power and The Glory, there is a postscript. And just as in Power its purpose is to undermine the protagonist’s tragedy; to set it back in the shabby everyday world; to highlight how pointless and futile it is to think that anybody can escape the relentless mundaneness of other people’s trite opinions, of our little lives.

The postscript has three quick scenes where we see:

  • Louise with Wilson, telling her he loves her. There is the bombshell revelation that she knew all about Scobie’s affair with Helen all along, in fact that’s why she came back from South Africa: the entire colony knew and one of the wives wrote and told her. Wilson reads Scobie’s diary and notices the way the remarks about sleeplessness – one of hte symptoms of angina – have been written in later in a different shade of ink. He floats the thought that Scobie might have committed suicide.
  • Helen with the cad, Bagster. Drunk, he tries to seduce her. Numb with loss, she lets him. In his twisted soliloquies Scobie had persuaded himself that continuing to love Helen saved her from emptiness and the attentions of the Bagsters of this world. If so, he has completely failed.
  • Louise with the priest Father Rank. She’s obviously shared Wilson’s suspicion that Scobie killed himself. They begin the debates which have continued in millions of readers’ minds, in reviews and scholarly articles and books for the past 66 years: Will God forgive Scobie? Does God’s mercy supercede the laws of the Church? Did he love either of his women? Did he only love himself? Did he truly love God?  and on and on, endlessly…

Critique

The Ministry of Fear was a laughable shambles of a novel: it was almost as if Greene deliberately threw together the most bizarrely surreal scenes he could conceive, along with great screeds about suicide and despair, and then set himself the challenge of pulling it all back into some shape by pretending it was a (wildly implausible) Nazi spy conspiracy thriller. It is a reckless satire on the thriller genre, with a whole vat of Catholic guilt thrown into the mix.

The Heart of The Matter is of a different order. It is a serious and sustained effort to portray contemporary characters in depth and detail. It is (rather grandly) divided, like a Victorian novel, into Books, themselves sub-divided into parts, themselves sub-divided into chapters, themselves sub-divided into short 3 or 4 page scenes. Pretty much every one of these scenes is written with thrilling power and accuracy. You could put the  book down after every single one of them to savour and admire their craft and force.

The first 120 pages, or Book One, are an immensely powerful portrait of an unhappy marriage, the Scobies’ marriage. The details are so perceptive and familiar to anyone whose marriage has been through rocky patches: the timeworn rituals, the midnight reassurances, the quiet lies to bolster each other’s confidence: the way two people can torture each other and yet stick to each other, is horribly convincing.

And the creation of Wilson as the immature outsider who naively thinks he’s fallen in love with Louise Scobie, and in effect becomes a witness to the outside appearance of these details, these pained looks and furtive deceits, is masterful. And outside this three the ring of ‘others’, the various officers and officials of the colony and their bitchy wives, and the claustrophic sense of being tightly cocooned by ever-present watchful eyes and malicious gossip, are wonderfully conveyed.

And the character of the slimy merchant Yusef who offers Scobie the bait of a loan of £200 which Scobie, with nowhere else to turn, accepts, in order to pay for his so-miserable wife to be despatched to sunny South Africa. Every scene between the knowing Scobie and the infinitely subtle Yusef are gold. In fact, scene after scene is written with tremendous psychological insight, with a terrifying precision of scene and setting, tone of voice, detail and dialogue.

Whether you accept the final conclusion to the tragedy – whether you intellectually and emotionally accept the premises which lead Scobie to his suicide – will vary from reader to reader, and from mood to mood. If you are a more emotional person or in an emotionally labile mood, then I think you will come away feeling this is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. Many critics have claimed it as such.

I am a more detached, intellectual (and older) reader and, while I praise the craftmenship of many of the novel’s individual scenes, in the end I felt too manipulated to give in to the novel’s spell. Either you are ‘inside’ the fiction and feel the author’s relentless comments about pain and despair are truly telling you something about the Human Condition. Or, like me, you are ‘outside’ the fiction, can admire the professionalism and expertise of its assembly, but are immune to its emotional and psychological manipulations.


The Heart of The Matter feels like a truly great novel. Nonetheless, it still reveals certain enduring aspects of Greene’s approach.

The plotlessness of GreeneWorld

As discussed in my previous posts about Greene, his mental landscape is one of unrelieved gloom, depression fermenting into suicidal thoughts. Freud diagnosed many mental illnesses as being essentially repetitive: the unconscious making repeated attempts to break into the conscious mind, the conscious mind erecting defences against it, a permanent gridlock which results in obsessive and compulsive patterns of behaviour or thought.

Applied to Greene’s fiction, this helps explain why his plots are so thin. His novels don’t really have plots they have predicaments – the whisky priest’s story in The Power and The Glory isn’t really a story at all, it’s a plight. Or even if one of his books does have a plot of sorts, you don’t have any sense of progress or movement by the end of the book. Everyone is still trapped. Maybe a bit trappeder. A Beckett-level of inanition and futility.

Although a plot can be extracted from Heart ie a sequence of events which propel the protagonist to his final disaster, viewed from another angle, the plight of the colonists remains much the same at the ending as it did at the start. Greene’s all-encompassing worldview of despair doesn’t really budge. On page one Wilson feels ‘intolerably lonely’. Towards the end of  Scobie’s life, ‘It seemed to him that he had never been so alone before.’ (p.235) Stasis.

The developing world is an ideal setting

As with revolutionary Mexico inThe Power and The Glory, the poverty and degradation of Africa here allow Greene free rein to his gift for finding seediness, shabbiness, moral squalor and decay at every turn. Could it be that his best novels are set in the developing world because there he could indulge to the full his personal obsessions with the (to him) terrifying futility of human existence?

Why, he wondered, swerving the car to avoid a dead pye-dog, do I love this place so much? Is it because here human nature hasn’t had time to disguise itself? Nobody here could ever talk about a heaven on earth. Heaven remained rigidly in its proper place on the other side of death, and on this side flourished the injustices, the cruelties, the meanness that elsewhere people so cleverly hushed up. Here you could love human beings nearly as God loved them, knowing the worst. (p.36)

Not only do developing countries set Greene’s imagination free but his melodramatic existentialist crisis-stricken protagonists somehow seem more plausible in faraway exotic lands than they do in, say, London. They just seem rather ridiculous in a London where they take their place among the millions of people we know who just get on with their lives, most of whom are right at home in the world, thank you very much, and completely oblivious to Greene’s brand of Catholic Despair.

In Mexico, Africa, post-war Austria, Vietnam, Haiti and so on, the setting itself has very conveniently justified a sense of poverty, corruption, easy death and despair before the author even lifts a finger to create a character.

Related links

The movie

Greene was phenomenally successful in getting his novels converted into films. The Heart of the Matter took 5 years, appearing in 1953, directed by George More O’Ferrall and starring Trevor Howard and Elizabeth Allan with sterling support from young Maria Schell as Helen, creepy Denholm Elliott as Wilson, slippery Gérard Oury as Yusef, and handsome Peter Finch as father Rank.

It is an astonishingly wooden film. The blurb claims Howard gives the performance of his career but this seems to mainly consist of pushing his cap up his forehead and rolling his eyes.

As usual the medium of film strips away all the subtlety and interest of a text and omits scores of the incidental scenes which help build up the plausibility of the novel. Thus reduced to its bare bones it’s hard to see why Scobie either ends up in love with two women or is so incapable of dealing with the situation like a rational adult.

But if the first hour and a half of the movie are a woodenly directed sketch of the novel, the last five minutes are a complete travesty: in the novel one of Scobie’s last and filthiest betrayals was telling Yusef that he thought Ali, his loyal boy, was spying on him and then acquiescing in what he half knew would happen, Yusef arranging for Ali to be murdered. He then proceeds to overdose on the painkillers he’s been carefully hoarding, passes out, collapses and dies.

In the movie, in a completely different ending, Scobie drives down to the docks to shoot himself but, while he cradles his loaded revolver pondering the whys and the wherefores, hears the screams of the usual night-time fights among the ‘wharf rats’ and goes running off to break it up. He is himself set upon and shot just as his faithful Ali comes running up to him. His good and faithful servant cradles Howard in his lap as he delivers the film’s last line: ‘Tell Mrs Scobie God make it alright.’ Roll credits, not a dry eye in the house.

It is a staggering indictment of the inability of film to bear witness to its literary sources or to make even the most modest gesture towards seriousness and difficulty.

Penguin cover of The Heart of The Matter

Penguin cover of The Heart of The Matter

Greene’s books

  • The Man Within (1929) One of the worst books I’ve ever read, a wretchedly immature farrago set in a vaguely described 18th century about a cowardly smuggler who betrays his fellows to the Excise men then flees to the cottage of a pure and innocent young woman who he falls in love with before his pathetic inaction leads to her death. Drivel.
  • The Name of Action (1930) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Rumour at Nightfall (1931) (repudiated by author, never republished)
  • Stamboul Train (1932) A motley cast of characters find out each others’ secrets and exploit each other on the famous Orient Express rattling across Europe, climaxing in the execution of one of the passengers, a political exile, in an obscure rail junction, and all wound up with a cynical business deal in Istanbul.
  • It’s a Battlefield (1934) London: a working class man awaits his death sentence for murder while a cast of seedy characters, including a lecherous HG Wells figure, betray each other and agonise about their pointless lives.
  • England Made Me (1935) Stockholm: financier and industrialist Krogh hires a pretty Englishwoman Kate Farrant to be his PA/lover. She gets him to employ her shiftless brother Anthony who, after only a few days, starts spilling secrets to the seedy journalist Minty, and so is bumped off by Krogh’s henchman, Hall.
  • A Gun for Sale (1936) England: After assassinating a European politician and sparking mobilisation for war, hitman Raven pursues the lecherous middle man who paid him with hot money to a Midlands town, where he gets embroiled with copper’s girl, Anne, before killing the middle man and the wicked arms merchant who was behind the whole deal, and being shot dead himself.
  • Brighton Rock (1938) After Kite is murdered, 17 year-old Pinkie Brown takes over leadership of one of Brighton’s gangs, a razor-happy psychopath who is also an unthinking Catholic tormented by frustrated sexuality. He marries a 16 year-old waitress (who he secretly despises) to stop her squealing on the gang, before being harried to a grisly death.
  • The Confidential Agent (1939) D. the agent for a foreign power embroiled in a civil war, tries and fails to secure a contract for British coal to be sent to his side. He flees the police and unfounded accusations of murder, has an excursion to a Midlands mining district where he fails to persuade the miners to go on strike out of solidarity for his (presumably communist) side, is caught by the police, put on trial, then helped to escape across country to a waiting ship, accompanied by the woman half his age who has fallen in love with him.
  • The Lawless Roads (1939) Greene travels round Mexico and hates it, hates its people and its culture, the poverty, the food, the violence and despair, just about managing to admire the idealised Catholicism which is largely a product of his own insistent mind, and a few heroic priests-on-the-run from the revolutionary authorities.
  • The Power and the Glory (1940) Mexico: An unnamed whisky priest, the only survivor of the revolutionary communists’ pogrom against the Catholic hierarchy, blunders from village to village feeling very sorry for himself and jeopardising lots of innocent peasants while bringing them hardly any help until he is caught and shot.
  • The Ministry of Fear (1943) Hallucinatory psychological fantasia masquerading as an absurdist thriller set in London during the Blitz when a man still reeling from mercy-killing his terminally ill wife gets caught up with a wildly improbable Nazi spy ring.
  • The Heart of The Matter (1948) Through a series of unfortunate events, Henry Scobie, the ageing colonial Assistant Commissioner of Police in Freetown, Sierra Leone, finds himself torn between love of his wife and of his mistress, spied on by colleagues and slowly corrupted by a local Syrian merchant, until life becomes intolerable and – as a devout Catholic – he knowingly damns himself for eternity by committing suicide. Whether you agree with its Catholic premises or not, this feels like a genuinely ‘great’ novel for the completeness of its conception and the thoroughness of its execution.
  • The Third Man (1949) The novella which formed the basis for the screenplay of the famous film starring Orson Welles. Given its purely preparatory nature, this is a gripping and wonderfully-written tale, strong on atmosphere and intrigue and mercifully light on Greene’s Catholic preachiness.
  • The End of The Affair (1951) Snobbish writer Maurice Bendrix has an affair with Sarah, the wife of his neighbour on Clapham Common, the dull civil servant, Henry Miles. After a V1 bomb lands on the house where they are illicitly meeting, half burying Bendrix, Sarah breaks off the affair and refuses to see him. Only after setting a detective on her, does Bendrix discover Sarah thought he had been killed in the bombing and prayed to God, promising to end their affair and be ‘good’ if only he was allowed to live – only to see him stumbling in through the wrecked doorway, from which point she feels duty bound to God to keep her word. She sickens and dies of pneumonia like many a 19th century heroine, but not before the evidence begins to mount up that she was, in fact, a genuine saint. Preposterous for most of its length, it becomes genuinely spooky at the end.
  • Twenty-One Stories (1954) Generally very short stories, uneven in quality and mostly focused on wringing as much despair about the human condition as possible using thin characters who come to implausibly violent endings – except for three short funny tales.
  • The Unquiet American (1955) Set in Vietnam as the French are losing their grip on the country, jaded English foreign correspondent, Thomas Fowler, reacts very badly to fresh-faced, all-American agent Alden Pyle, who both steals his Vietnamese girlfriend and is naively helping a rebel general and his private army in the vain hope they can form a non-communist post-colonial government. So Fowler arranges for Pyle to be assassinated. The adultery and anti-Americanism are tiresome, but the descriptions of his visits to the front line are gripping.
  • Loser Takes All (1955) Charming comic novella recounting the mishaps of accountant Bertram who is encouraged to get married at a swanky hotel in Monte Carlo by his wealthy boss who then doesn’t arrive to pick up the bill, as he’d promised to – forcing Bertram to dabble in gambling at the famous Casino and becoming so obsessed with winning that he almost loses his wife before the marriage has even begun.
  • Our Man In Havana (1958) Comedy about an unassuming vacuum cleaner salesman, Jim Wormold, living in Havana, who is improbably recruited for British intelligence and, when he starts to be paid, feels compelled to manufacture ‘information’ from made-up ‘agents’. All very farcical until the local security services and then ‘the other side’ start taking an interest, bugging his phone, burgling his flat and then trying to bump him off.
  • A Burnt-Out Case (1960) Tragedy. Famous architect Querry travels to the depths of the Congo, running away from his European fame and mistress, and begins to find peace working with the local priests and leprosy doctor, when the unhappy young wife of a local factory owner accuses him of seducing her and fathering her child, prompting her husband to shoot Querry dead.
  • The Comedians (1966) Tragedy. Brown returns to run his hotel in Port-au-Prince, in a Haiti writhing under the brutal regime of Papa Doc Duvalier, and to resume his affair with the ambassador’s wife, Martha. A minister commits suicide in the hotel pool; Brown is beaten up by the Tontons Macoute; he tries to help a sweet old American couple convert the country to vegetarianism. In the final, absurd sequence he persuades the obvious con-man ‘major’ Jones to join the pathetic ‘resistance’ (12 men with three rusty guns), motivated solely by the jealous (and false) conviction that Jones is having an affair with his mistress. They are caught, escape, and Brown is forced to flee to the neighbouring Dominican Republic where the kindly Americans get him a job as assistant to the funeral director he had first met on the ferry to Haiti.
  • Travels With My Aunt (1969) Comedy. Unmarried, middle-aged, retired bank manager Henry Pullman meets his aunt Augusta at the funeral of his mother, and is rapidly drawn into her unconventional world, accompanying her on the Orient Express to Istanbul and then on a fateful trip to south America, caught up in her colourful stories of foreign adventures and exotic lovers till he finds himself right in the middle of an uncomfortably dangerous situation.
  • The Honorary Consul (1973) Tragedy. Dr Eduardo Plarr accidentally assists in the kidnapping of his friend, the alcoholic, bumbling ‘honorary consul’ to a remote city on the border of Argentina, Charley Fortnum, with whose ex-prostitute wife he happens to be having an affair. When he is asked to go and treat Fortnum, who’s been injured, Plarr finds himself also taken prisoner by the rebels and dragged into lengthy Greeneish discussions about love and religion and sin and redemption etc, while they wait for the authorities to either pay the ransom the rebels have demanded or storm their hideout. It doesn’t end well.
  • The Human Factor (1978) Maurice Castle lives a quiet, suburban life with his African wife, Sarah, commuting daily to his dull office job in a branch of British Security except that, we learn half way through the book, he is a double agent passing secrets to the Russians. Official checks on a leak from his sector lead to the improbable ‘liquidation’ of an entirely innocent colleague which prompts Castle to make a panic-stricken plea to his Soviet controllers to be spirited out of the country. And so he is, arriving safely in Moscow. But to the permanent separation with the only person he holds dear in the world and who he was, all along, working on behalf of – his beloved Sarah. Bleak and heart-breaking.
  • Monsignor Quixote (1982) Father Quixote is unwillingly promoted monsignor and kicked out of his cosy parish, taking to the roads of Spain with communist ex-mayor friend, Enrique ‘Sancho’ Zancas, in an old jalopy they jokingly nickname Rocinante, to experience numerous adventures loosely based on his fictional forebear, Don Quixote, all the while debating Greene’s great Victorian theme, the possibility of a doubting – an almost despairing – Catholic faith.
  • The Captain and The Enemy (1988) 12-year-old Victor Baxter is taken out of his boarding school by a ‘friend’ of his father’s, the so-called Captain, who carries him off to London to live with his girlfriend, Liza. Many years later Victor, a grown man, comes across his youthful account of life in this strange household when Liza dies in a road accident, and he sets off on an adult pilgrimage to find the Captain in Central America, a quest which – when he tells him of Liza’s death – prompts the old man to one last – futile and uncharacteristic – suicidal gesture.

Nada the Lily by Henry Rider Haggard (1892)

13 August 2012

Nada the Lily is Rider Haggard’s sixth novel. Haggard distinguished between his “Romances” – which included the She and Allan Quatermain series, both featuring a large element of fantasy and the supernatural – and his “Novels”, which are more naturalistic, where the emphasis is more on human relationships than the fantastic.

Blacks The most striking feature of Nada the Lily is that it is set entirely among South African blacks.  An (unnamed) white man only appears in the few pages of the frame narrative where he meets an ancient witch-doctor. I don’t know of any other novels of the time which are set only among blacks, and where the thoughts of black characters good, bad and indifferent are described in great detail.

Tragic romance The last hundred or so pages of the novel describe the love affair between the the mighty warrior Umslopogaas and the beautiful Zulu maiden, Nada, which gives the book its title. (It’s true that, early in the book the narrator hints that Nada might have white blood in her, from a Portuguese trader who stayed with the Swazi tribe from whom Mopo’s wife, Mcropha, came.)

Chaka the tyrant But this love story is completely overshadowed by Mopo’s long servitude to the Zulu tyrant, Chaka, and the multiple examples of Chaka’s appalling cruelty and sadism which dominate the first 200 pages. Chaka (nowadays known as Shaka) was a real historical character, founder of the Zulu nation as the predominant military force in south-east Africa, a dominance they held from his kingship (1816-28) until the Zulu wars with the invading British in the late 1870s. Chaka is portrayed as a precursor of Stalin, paranoid and cruel in the extreme, given to ordering the extermination of whole tribes, the casual execution of complete innocents on the slightest pretext. The Wikipedia article on Shaka says some of the legends about Shaka’s cruelty might be colonial and apartheid propaganda; but still says there’s plenty of evidence of the large areas laid waste, of murder, torture, cannibalism carried out under his unhinged edicts:

“After the death of his mother Shaka ordered as a sign of mourning that no crops should be planted during the following year, no milk (the basis of the Zulu diet at the time) was to be used, and any woman who became pregnant was to be killed along with her husband. At least 7,000 people who were deemed to be insufficiently grief-stricken were executed, though it wasn’t restricted to humans, cows were slaughtered so that their calves would know what losing a mother felt like.”

Violent African novels The novel is like this only more so, and for 200 long pages. It cast a cloud of misery and murder over me for the week it took to read. The sadistic cruelty and casual violence found on every page reminded me of other African novels I’ve read –

  • the psychopathic African leader, Sam, at the heart of Chinua Achebe’s 1987 novel, Anthills of the Savannah
  • the sadistic father, Eugene, at the heart of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s 2003 novel, Purple Hibiscus
  • the psychopathic Idi Amin at the heart of Giles Foden’s 1998 novel, The Last King of Scotland
  • the sadism and cruelty taught to child soldiers during the war in Sierra Leone described in Delia Jarrett-Macauley’s 2005 novel,  Moses, Citizen and Me
  • several books about the Rwandan genocide, the civil war in the Congo, about Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, about the Sudan and Darfur, about the civil wars in Mozambique and Namibia..
  • I might as well mention Heart of Darkness (1899)

Thus, most of the books about Africa I’ve ever read, whether fiction or non-fiction, detail a stupefying level of violence and cruelty, so Nada, extreme though it is, fits right in with what I’ve read elsewhere.

An African Epic However Haggard isn’t detailing Chaka’s psychopathic behaviour for racist reasons (unlike later Boer and apartheid propagandists). The opposite. Haggard is deliberately setting out to write an African epic, a genre which raises its characters to the level of archetypal heroes and is written in a high, unflinching and sombre style. The story of how Umslopogaas is rescued at his birth reminds me of the legend of Moses and even the childermass; the harsh man-to-man combats in the dust and heat of the African veldt remind me over and over of the unforgiving brutality of The Iliad.

Haggard, like many of his contemporaries, was fascinated by folk tales, ancient myths and legends but, unlike most, his vast output includes attempts to rewrite them or bring them into the modern age: Haggard actually wrote a Viking saga, Eric Brighteyes, and a continuation of the Odyssey, The World’s Desire. To my mind, in Nada, he is consciously striving for an epic oral style to give Homeric dignity to his Zulu protagonists. The long story is told out loud over a succession of evenings by the old witch-doctor, Mopo, to the anonymous white man who takes it down and publishes it. The opening echoes conventions of the epic form:

“You ask me, my father, to tell you the tale of the youth of Umslopogaas, holder of the iron Chieftainess, the axe Groan-maker, who was named Bulalio the Slaughterer, and of his love for Nada, the most beautiful of Zulu women. It is long; but you are here for many nights, and, if I live to tell it, it shall be told. Strengthen your heart, my father, for I have much to say that is sorrowful, and even now, when I think of Nada the tears creep through the horn that shuts out my old eyes from light.”

It doesn’t quite invoke a Muse, but it does justify the purpose and form of the text, it foretells the tragic ending of the tale right at the start, and it uses multiple epithets to build up the heroic stature of the male protagonist, Umslopogaas. The whole text is cast in this style, an imagining by Haggard of the elevated yet also laconic style of a pre-literate, oral people. The deeper you read, the more completely convincing it becomes, and you find yourself entranced, sitting in the gloom of a cramped African hut, listening to the low voice of an eerie old man as he tells his long and tragic tale.

“All that day till the sun grew low we walked round the base of the great Ghost Mountain, following the line of the river. We met no one, but once we came to the ruins of a kraal, and in it lay the broken bones of many men, and with the bones rusty assegais and the remains of ox-hide shields, black and white in colour. Now I examined the shields, and knew from their colour that they had been carried in the hands of those soldiers who, years ago, were sent out by Chaka to seek for Umslopogaas, but who had returned no more.”

 I think it’s a triumph!

Jacket illustration of Nada the Lily

Allan’s Wife and Other Tales by Henry Rider Haggard (1889)

29 July 2012

Allan’s Wife and Other Tales is a collection of stories by Henry Rider Haggard about his African hunter hero, Allan Quatermain. The title story is by far the longest, describing Allan’s childhood, upbringing in Africa, and meeting with his wife, and is accompanied by three genuinely short stories, Hunter Quartermain’s Story, A Tale of Three Lions, and Long Odds. They were published separately in magazines in the first flush of Haggard’s success, then collected in this volume.

Allan’s Wife (1889) is a moving account of Quatermain’s sad English childhood (when his mother and three siblings die of fever his father emigrates to South Africa), robust African upbringing, and the adventures which lead to his marriage. Unlike Kipling’s often forced and exhausting knowledgeableness, Haggard’s familiarity with guns and hunting, the South African landscape, and the customs and language of Zulus, Masai, Boers etc comes over clearly and convincingly. Apart from the main narrative arc about Quatermain’s meeting, wooing and wedding his wife, Stella, there are two striking features:

The African medicine man, Indaba-zimbi, accompanies Quatermain from early in his adventures and establishes himself as a voice of ancestral African wisdom, giving good advice and performing miraculous magic at key moments. Their first meeting at a competition with his rival to draw down lightning from an electrical storm is pretty dramatic. Repeatedly he says you white men are clever, but you don’t know everything. Thus, as in all the Quatermain stories, a black African is a key figure, representing wisdom, dignity, cunning and endurance.

The baboon lady Key to the plot is the notion that Allan’s wife-to-be, Stella, and her father, years earlier, had rescued a woman, Hendrika, who’d been captured as a baby and brought up by baboons and who, as a result, had extraordinary climbing skills and could communicate with the baboons (rather like Mowgli the man-cub can communicate with wolves and all the other jungle animals in the Jungle Books). This unexpectedly turns out to be the trigger for the crisis of the story, when she and her baboon army kidnap Stella and take her off to a cave in the hills.

As a footnote, it’s worth pointing out that, even here, there is a Lost World since Stella and her father, deep in inaccessible Africa, have reinhabited mysterious marble houses which they found abandoned by some previous, highly sophisticated, culture. In fact, though short, Allan’s Wife, packs in a load of the tropes and types of incident which made Haggard’s reputation.

Illustration of Quatermain finding his wife in the cave

Maiwa’s revenge, or The War of The Little Hand by Henry Rider Haggard (1888)

28 July 2012

Maiwa’s Revenge is the third Allan Quatermain novel (in order of writing), and an innovation in the series in that is a) short b) set within a frame narrative – Quatermain is on a shoot at his Yorkshire home with friends and, after bagging three woodcock in flight is persuaded to tell the story of how he bagged three elephants on one hunt. This anecdote leads on to a bigger story which Quatermain tells in the first person in the same fast-moving conversational style as the previous books.

Once again, as in KSM and AQ, the core of the story is the white man bringing war and slaughter to an African kingdom. Quatermain decides to go hunting into the interior of Natal. He pushes on into uncharted territory in pursuit of buffalo, and then is charged by a rhinoceros, only just escaping. On the basis of this feat local villagers ask if he can rid them of three giant elephants which are eating their crop. Again, Quatermain manages to kill all three, though only after some dicey moments. As his natives are cutting the ivory tusks from the dead elephants, a statuesque native girl appears. This is Maiwa and she explains that the area is ruled by the Matuku tribe, led by the wicked Wambe, who lord it over their neighbour tribe, the Butiana, led by the timorous king Nala. Maiwa was coerced into leaving her native Butiana to go and be married to Wambe, since when he has beaten her and then, when her baby by the king was eighteen months old, he brutally killed it by putting it in the “thing that bites”, a steel lion trap. the baby’s hand was severed and Maiwa has kept it ever since as a gruesome spur to revenge.

Now she has fled Wambe’s kraal and come to Quatermain with her tale of woe, carrying a message from a white man, John Every, who Wambe has held prisoner for seven years. In every way, then, Quatermain is incentivised and justified in leading a Butiana attack on Wambe’s heavily defended camp, against overwhelming odds, and attack he does! It is a glorious goulash of imperial cliches:

Thoughts Once again a white man entering an African kingdom brings war and death on a large scale. In all three narratives Quatermain’s arrival prompts civil war and the eventual triumph of his (White) side.  Haggard always makes sure the wars are elaborately justified; that they are righting egregious wrongs: the cruel tyrant Twala is not the rightful king; the cruel queen Sorais is trying to murder her sister; the cruel tyrant Wambe is, er, a cruel tyrant.

1. Forget the sexism or the (surprisingly mild) racism, the repeated message of Haggard’s books is that the White Man is justified in intervening in native affairs, in fighting small colonial wars to establish Peace and Security, to set his choice of king or queen upon the throne to ensure the territory becomes safe for White hunting and trading.

2. And the second message is in the medium itself: his prose is amazingly supple and fluid for the time; compare and contrast with the denser, slower style of literary writers such as Hardy or Conrad or Henry James. Haggard’s prose style itself conveys the attitude of derring-do, stiff upper lip, and thrills and excitement, especially in fast-moving battle scenes. Generations of boys must have been inspired to go off to Britain’s umpteen small colonial wars their heads full of Haggard’s thrilling, vivid descriptions.

“There too on the wall stood Maiwa, a white garment streaming from her shoulders, an assegai in her hand, her breast heaving, her eyes flashing. Above all the din of battle I could catch the tones of her clear voice as she urged the soldiers on to victory. But victory was not yet. Wambe’s soldiers gathered themselves together, and bore our men back by the sheer weight of numbers. They began to give, then once more they rallied, and the fight hung doubtfully.

“‘Slay, you war-whelps,’ cried Maiwa from the wall. ‘Are you afraid, you women, you chicken-hearted women! Strike home, or die like dogs! What—you give way! Follow me, children of Nala.’ And with one long cry she leapt from the wall as leaps a stricken antelope, and holding the spear poised rushed right into the thickest of the fray.

“The warriors saw her, and raised such a shout that it echoed like thunder against the mountains. They massed together, and following the flutter of her white robe crashed into the dense heart of the foe. Down went the Matuku before them like trees before a whirlwind. Nothing could stand in the face of such a rush as that. It was as the rush of a torrent bursting its banks. All along their line swept the wild desperate charge; and there, straight in the forefront of the battle, still waved the white robe of Maiwa.”

As a 21st century adult I am conflicted; the pleasure of the text derives from the schoolboy mentality it embodies and enforces; the battle scenes are thrilling; the stakes are black and white. But since Haggard’s innocent times we’ve had over a century of grotesque wars, starting with the Boer War and going rapidly downhill thereafter. If you stop to consider the bloodshed at the core of all of these stories, the grown-up in you can’t help but be appalled.

Illustration of Allan Quatermain (centre) following bearers carrying ivory down to the coast at the triumphal conclusion of ‘Maiwa’s Revenge’

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