A review of The American Mission by Matthew Palmer, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, NY, 2014
This intriguing tale is set in Africa, specifically in the present day Congo. Descriptions of the teeming capital of Kinshasa and its mad house politics, full of intrigue and violence, ring true. Similarly authentic are descriptions of a remote village tucked on the shore of one of the Congo’s massive rivers. Finally, the author captures the essence of how an American embassy operates. He should be qualified for accuracy in that regard because Palmer is a serving U.S. diplomat. Yet, however realistic the background, this novel is fiction. The story is a rollicking suspenseful adventure replete with heroes, heroines and villains galore.
The basic plot is that a noble disgruntled young diplomat whose career is apparently in the doldrums is given a new chance at embassy Kinshasa. He eagerly seizes the opportunity, but soon finds that things are not what they seem, and not on the up and up. He is sent out to perform tasks which he finds morally repugnant, particularly an ambassadorial backed effort to support an international company’s effort to exploit a mining concession that would destroy a peaceful village. He strives to reverse the idea and finds himself drawn into a whirlwind of truths, half-truths and outright lies. Erstwhile friends become enemies and vice versa. Even as the plot swirls, our young diplomat finds his firm ethical ground and stays true to his ideals.
I really enjoyed the novel because I liked the setting and all the foreign service references, most of which were spot on. While I don’t mind seeing diplomatic stereotypes caricatured, I would caution that there are no inner State Department cabals like the ones described. I offer a few other little nit-picks for what they are worth. Palmer moves the geography, geology and ethnic presence of the Congo around to suit his needs. That’s okay in a novel, but still disconcerting to find the Luba people hundreds of miles from home, the copper belt re-located to the rain forest, and Zongo (a real town) misplaced on the inside cover map. Additionally, in the opening chapter set in Darfur the Janjaweed did not raid Zagahwa camps but often attacked Fur IDP camps. A comment about how to get to the fictitious village was “fly to Goma and go downriver” is wrong. Kisangani is the town on the Congo River that should have been referenced. Goma is on a lake. Finally, in talking about the Foreign Service our hero says he registered his will with the human resources office back home. That is not done.
Foreign Service Officers will particularly enjoy this novel as will folks who know Africa and know how politics and business play out there. Even so, it is a novel with universal appeal.