The demise of the Cold War has not caught Len Deighton napping. In last year’s Spy Sinker we learned that the collapse of Eastern European communism was engineered in part by incredibly bad economic advice passed on to the codgers in the Kremlin by British double agent Fiona Samson. Now Deighton has capered off in a new direction, moving the novel of espionage and political intrigue to the brooding tropics of South America. One of Deighton’s protagonists, a would-be revolutionary, has no sooner disembarked from the tramp freighter that deposits him in the imaginary nation of Spanish Guiana than his well-bred nostrils are assailed by the ”sour smell of putrefaction” from the vast rain forest that begins at the decrepit edge of the shantytowns in the capital city of Tepilo.
Spanish Guiana is the kind of country that exports timber, coffee, and cocaine, and imports automatic weapons, mirrored sunglasses, half-baked revolutionaries, and CIA spooks. In addition to these types, MAMista‘s cast of characters includes a burned-out Australian physician named Ralph Lucas, who’s been sent by the trendy leftists of London’s Webley-Hockley Foundation to report on the medical needs in the nation’s war-torn southern provinces. Lucas’ contact with the guerrilla bands who control the area turns out to be one Inez Cassidy, dedicated revolutionary and world-class knockout. A reader needn’t be clairvoyant to guess that their relationship will involve something more than tropical diseases.
Nor, for that matter, to recognize that the presence of the inappropriately named Angel Paz (”angel of peace”) bodes no good for either lover. Inez has seen his type of ”Malibu Marxist” before. Rich kids like Paz — he grew up in Beverly Hills — invariably ”arrived full of surplus value theory and (went) home wracked with malaria and heavy with disillusion.” The young man’s uncle in L.A. thinks the trip will help the kid grow up. ”They got a whole army of Marxists down there,” he taunts. ”Go down there and take a look at them before they stuff them and put them into a museum.”
Or before they perish of tropical diseases. Eaten by parasites, wasted by malnutrition, and ridden by factional bickering, the revolutionaries own the jungle only because nobody else wants it. Far from being the pre-Columbian Eden portrayed in so many films and novels of late, Deighton’s rain forest is a pestilential hellhole where leeches, insects, and snakes compete with dysentery and beriberi to finish people off.
But there’s oil under the swampland, and that raises the stakes in Washington — at least in the opinion of unscrupulous national security adviser John Curl. He dismisses CIA reports correctly assessing the guerrillas’ weaknesses as politically unacceptable. ”I prefer to think that maybe any day now (rebel leader) Ramon is going to come roaring out of that jungle like Attila the Hun,” Curl decides. An inevitably disastrous U.S. intervention cannot help but follow. As with any Deighton novel, MAMista is crisply written and full of rumpled heroes, sickening careerists, and shrewd ironies. But it’s also as predictable as a Dirty Harry movie from beginning to end. B