If you have read anything about the history of the Congo (such as the horrific but excellent and unforgettable account by Adam Hochschild, King Leopold’s Ghost), you know that this region’s sad legacy of violence and exploitation is a reflection both of its holdings of a wealth of natural resources desired by the so-called civilized world, and the greed that characterizes many in that world. By setting this thriller in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Palmer manages to educate readers about the history and complexity of politics in the region without being didactic about it. Unfortunately, the story of the Congo has never been a happy one. Although the incentives for exploitation may have changed from rubber and ivory to gold, diamonds, tungsten and coltan, the welfare of the Congolese people still seems to be – like always – the last concern of the big political and commercial players.
In this story, foreign diplomat Alex Baines gets a job as Political Counselor in the American Embassy in Kinshasa, the capital and largest city of the DRC. One of his tasks is to help convince villagers who live over valuable ore sites in the DRC to move out so that the Consolidated Mining, Inc. can begin open-pit strip mining. Such operations would not only destroy the landscape, but would not allow the native villagers to develop and control their own mining operations of what is, after all, their own land.
Alex protests, but his boss and former mentor in the Foreign Service, Ambassador Howard “Spence” Spencer, reminded him that supporting U.S. business interests is part of the embassy’s job. Spence also argued that it wasn’t like there was a different standard for America than for Africa: “… it’s really no different than what a dozen coal companies do every day in West Virginia.” Mining these resources allows the U.S. “to continue to operate as a great nation that accomplishes great things.” Finally, Alex was apprised that if the Americans didn’t take advantage of the DRC’s mineral wealth, the Chinese would jump in, and so it was in their best interests to secure the resources for the U.S.
Alex can’t help but think there is something wrong about all this, but goes anyway to the largest village, Busu-Mouli, to help convince the local chiefs to support the mining project. It doesn’t take much for him to come to sympathize with the point of view of Busu-Mouli’s Chief Tsiolo and his attractive daughter, Marie – a talented engineer and geologist.
Political machinations in Africa, far away from the U.S., can be extremely deadly, with plenty of desperate Africans willing to kill for money, and plenty of greedy business people and political operatives willing to hire them. By opposing the corruption, desecration of the land, and the mistreatment of its people, Alex puts himself in extreme danger.
Discussion: The author is not only the son of bestselling thriller writer Michael Palmer, but also has worked in the U.S. Foreign Service for twenty years, and is a five-time winner of the State Department’s Superior Honor Award. One wonders if he wants to keep his day job: he paints a very unflattering picture of the U.S., its interests, and its operatives.
Evaluation: I was afraid that this book would be preachy or pedantic, but it is neither. And in spite of being set in the very, very complicated world of central African politics, it is easy to follow, has a good plot line, and is quite entertaining. Was the ending too unrealistic? I don’t know; I hope not.
Published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), 2014