Investigations of a diamond trader

2007-02-01 00:00

One reviewer has likened the style of this South African thriller to that of John le Carré, but if there's a resemblance, it's a pale one: the book lacks the substance, poignancy and sense of impending doom of Le Carré at his best. Still, it is - unlike so much of what is gushing into print here in these post-apartheid days - sparely, at times enigmatically, written, and the tone is appropriately ironic, with occasional excursions into dry wit.

At the heart of the story are Angolan diamonds then and now, and an attempt to investigate the transgressions of a diamond trader, José Perreira, the fence of the title. The investigation is initiated by the head of security at huge diamond company Brano (weird alias for, presumably, De Beers), a man known only as “the general”. Charming and sinister, he'd been the military superior of lawyer Jan Klein during the border war, and now believes Klein to be ideal for the job - even though he's spent the last 10 years as legal advisor to the government and is hardly prepared for potentially dangerous expeditions to other parts of Africa. So, almost an innocent abroad, Klein sets out for Rundu and a meeting with Steve Brunner, who works for Brano's muscle in the area, the private security firm Strategic Solutions (a thinly disguised Executive Outcomes, often confusingly misprinted in the text as “Strategic Outcomes”).

The book gives a vivid view of the old SADF, and of its various, and often nefarious, actions in Angola and Namibia. It gives lively portraits of the ex-paratroopers who now work for Strategic Solutions, border war veterans for hire anywhere in Africa. And it reserves most of its cynicism for Brano and its French and American rivals, now scrambling for a diamond concession in the Cuango Valley, source of the diamonds used by Unita to finance the war. The characters are interesting and the story is economically and readably told - except where the author deems long historical explanations necessary, when momentum is lost and the reader's interest flags.

Gray writes skilfully, knows his stuff, plots well and, mostly, has good control of pace and suspense. Perhaps his second novel will be less uneven.

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