John Le Carré checks his fiction against the real Congo

In the latest issue of The Nation, John Le Carré writes of the Congo journey he undertook in search of “fictional characters I had invented, in a country I had never visited.”

The distant town of my imagination was Bukavu in Eastern Congo, known formerly as Costermansville and built in the early twentieth century by Belgian colonialists. It stands at the southern end of Lake Kivu, at 4,800 feet the highest and coolest of all Africa’s Great Lakes. I had written my novel in a period when for personal reasons I had felt unable to leave England. Now, too late if my previous books were anything to go by, I was about to check its people and places against the reality.

But the novel isn’t really set in Congo at all — or so I had almost persuaded myself by the time I began my journey. It’s a romantic satire, for heaven’s sake, written with both feet firmly off the ground. It’s about Tony Blair’s England, and good old-fashioned colonial exploitation, and political hypocrisy and shameless public lies, and other scores I had to settle. It’s about the quest for identity in our multiethnic society, and New Labour’s assault on our civil liberties, and a bunch of other similarly lofty themes. Congo is just backcloth, an abstraction, a symbol of perpetual colonial exploitation, slaughter, famine and disorder. To meet it face to face would only violate the delicate illusion! — or so I had tried to believe.

The only problem was that, well before I had added the last full stop to the first draft, Congo had become the elephant in my drawing room, and no amount of literary sophistry was going to make it disappear. My central character was the son of an erring Irish missionary and a Congolese headman’s daughter. He had been dragged up in a bleak English boarding school, and he and I could get along fine. I had no quarrel with him. But when it came to my three Congolese warlords, each one some sort of standard-bearer of the militia or social faction that had spawned him, I had doubts. Neither my researches, nor my furtive lunches with Congolese expatriates, had reassured me that these characters could survive in the real world. If my visit to Bukavu did not deliver their likely counterparts — by which I mean, verify their attitudes and beliefs — I might be forced to look for other ways to tell the story, such as writing it again from scratch.


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