Krishnan Srinivasan has worked at high levels in the Foreign Service and the Commonwealth Secretariat. He has spent several years in Africa where he seems to have acquired an insider’s perspective into the shuffle and elbowing that go by the name of diplomacy in most countries. This is Srinivasan’s second book, which he describes as his prequel to The Eccentric Effect, published in 2001.The novel is set during the the era of the Cold War, in Southern Africa, in Mlanbule, capital of Cunenia. President Christopher Manda is a shadowy figure, whose sole function seems to be to provide a target for the dissident forces in his state. These are led by Tom Mazabuka, an ambitious man of political acumen and leader of SALM (struggle for African Liberation Movement).
Into this scenario, enter Michael Marco, Ambassador for Somalia, James Hazelwood, American Ambassador, fresh from an assignment in troubled Teheran, Boris Skatchov, Soviet ambassador, and Sir John Critchley, the British Ambassador. The stage seems set for confrontations and exciting showdowns.While the various Ambassadors exchange social niceties at diplomatic evenings, the Soviets have sent a nuclear-armed ship, the Voroshilov to prevent the Americans from helping the helping the racist Government test a nuclear bomb. The Soviets demand that western bases in South Africa be withdrawn, the present regime be toppled and taken over by Tom Mazabuka and SALM.
Here then are all the ingredients for a fruity John Le Carre-like thriller. But, and this a very big but, Srinivasan’s treatment reduces the novel to a poor thing. For one thing, for a greater part of the book, there is more “telling” than “showing”— the chief actors are described in wearisome detail, from their clothes to their faces, nothing is left to the imagination: President Manda of Cunenia was “tall and slim and dressed conservatively in a white shirt , striped tie, double-breasted black suitand black shoes shined to a high gloss”. This Bible-quoting character is obviously modelled on Nelson Mandela, but posesses none of Mandela’s charisma. Such unnecessary description clouds every character in the book to make for sheer narrative tedium.
A lot of the writing is trite to the point of being totally ineffective. When the Soviet and American Ambassadors meet at the Chinese embassy reception, in spite of being old friends, their conversation is laboured and unreal. Old chess-playing pals, the talk turns to chess:asked if he still plays, Hazelwood answers:”No time, no practice. But I am always willing to match my wits with yours.” “On the board or in diplomacy”asks the wily Skatcov, and goes on to ask about the climate in Washington DC. “political or meteorological” Hazelwood counters. Skatchov’s sarcastic comment is, “Like a barman. Soda or water? Ice or without?”
Meanwhile the political situation grows tenser with each passing day as the Voroshilov comes closer to Cunenia. The United States sends a special agent, Andrew Gent of the CIA to help Hazelwood in his negotiations with the visiting Soviets. Gent is as nonconformist and bohemian in his tactics as Hazelwood is correct, the result is comically disastrous. Julian Katongo, erstwhile employee of the Cunenian State, turns traitor, and appeals to the ever-cautious Hazelwood for asylum.Much against his will, he is persuaded to do so by Gent. Meanwhile, he has met with and been seduced by the gorgeous black girl, Charity Okono, to a point where he cannot do without her. She is nobody’s woman, and yet, every man’s mistress, should it serve her purpose. Katongo carries out a successful coup, kills Manda and sets himself up as President, in the process breaking every promise he has made to the Americans. Finally, he meets his fate at the hands of Charity, and the reader discovers that she is only interested in Mazabuka and SALM.
Strangely enough, after several less than satisfactory chapters, the narrative takes a sudden leap into fast-moving drama, bringing to life, Hazelwood, Julian Katongo, and of course the strongest character in the book , Charity. It also turns out that Marco, the Somalian Ambassador— the “Ugly Ambassador” of the title, for all his shambling, ill-dressed, retiring appearance is a key player, in fact the shrewdest of the diplomatic lot, able to foresee what is about to happen in Cunenia. It is he to whom Hazelwood turns, to when in need of a father confessor. It is also he who gives the American sound advice about his colourless marriage. In fact, so successful is he , that Hazelwood miserable as he is after Charity abandons him, is galvanized enough to confront the Soviet bully at the conference which has never taken off. He also sends for his long-ignored wife.
The end is predictable—Tom and Charity will take over Cunenia, the Somali Marcos ordered home, Hazelwood is congratulated by the American President, awarded the distinguished service medal(won by default), and the Soviets melt away, having served their purpose of being mere nuisance value. Hazelwood sends for his wife, and saves both his marriage and self-esteem.Every one lives happily ever after.
A lot of unnecessary pornographic detail mars the narrative—true enough that the whole Charity episode sizzles with sex—even so, every small detail of their lovemaking helpsto lose sight of the main interest, which is the unmaking and remaking of Cunenia engineered by Charity.
Usha Hemmadi, an editor and critic, was senior lecturer, Elphinstone College, University of Bombay.