Wednesday, 23 February 2005

Len Deighton: MAMista (1991)

MAMista coverEdition: Arrow, 1992
Review number: 1285

Written in between Bernard Samson novels, MAMista is Len Deighton's first attempt to find a new subject for his fiction, following the end of the Cold War in Europe. MAMista ends up being one of Deighton's most radically non-typical novels, most like Close-Up from the rest of his output in lots of ways - and that too was a novel written at a time when he was searching for a way forward as a writer. Another novel which is even more similar, though not by Deighton, is John le Carré's The Little Drummer Girl.

The subject of MAMista seems exceptionally up to date now, rather more so than it did at the time. It is about a terrorist group (or freedom fighters, as they would term themselves) in a poor country in South America where the main economic activity is the cultivation of coca leaves. Three outsiders become either MAMista members or effectively hostages, and the backbone of the story is the description of a terrible trek through the jungle after a raid. At the time, it felt as though Che Guevara was three decades behind the times, but now terrorism is back at the centre of our consciousness, even if not in South America.

The most important thing to say about MAMista is that it is not really a thriller, but a tragedy. There is no hope of a happy ending for anyone but the members of the oppressive regime in this novel, which makes it definitely Deighton's most downbeat. The connection with Close-Up lies mainly in not being in the thriller genre, but the parallels with The Little Drummer Girl are in the storyline, as both plots are about terrorists and hostages. So Deighton's first response to the end of the Cold War was to move out of the thriller genre almost completely, to write a mainstream novel with some of the trappings of a thriller.

It has to be said that MAMista is not one of Deighton's best novels, though it grows on one on repeated reading. None of the characters are particularly engaging, and the tone of the narrative is relentlessly cheerless, lacking the cynical humour usually characteristic of the author. This means that it doesn't hold the attention as this sort of project really should, particularly as the storyline lacks the urgency and forward motion of a thriller (and this slowness is presumably intended, as it mirrors the confusion and pointlessness of the guerilla campaign).

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