Little, Brown and Company, 2006, 352 pages
Hailed everywhere as a masterpiece of suspense, John le Carré's return to Africa is the story of Bruno Salvador (aka Salvo), the 25-year-old orphaned love child of an Irish missionary and a Congolese woman. Quickly rising to the top of his profession as an interpreter, Salvo is dispatched by British Intelligence to a top-secret meeting between Western financiers and East Congolese warlords, where he hears things not meant for his ears - and is forced to interpret matters never intended for his reawoken African conscience. By turns thriller, love story, and comic allegory of our times, THE MISSION SONG recounts Salvo's heroically naïve journey out of the dark of Western hypocrisy and into the heart of lightness.
John le Carré is the anti-Fleming; his characters are three-dimensional human beings with tons of human failings, the interactions are subtle, the agencies they work for are morally gray at best, and the action rarely involves much in the way of heroics.
The Mission Song, being one of his later political novels, is not about Cold War spy games, but the new world of globalism and the neo-colonialism still going on in Africa. Though none of the action actually takes place in Africa; in what I suspect was a deliberately symbolic choice, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo are discussed, debated, and carved up like a turkey at the table, but for the most part, it is all done from across the ocean, with the main character, Bruno Salvador, never leaving England.
Salvador, or "Salvo" began his life in the Congo, born of a British missionary and his Congolese mistress. After his father died, Salvo was raised as a "secret child" in a Congolese monastery, until the age of ten when he emigrated to England and became a subject of Her Majesty. Now in his late 20s, he uses his gift for languages (he speaks fluent English, French, Swahili, and a slew of other African languages) to work as a high-level interpreter for banks and courts and hospitals... and, unknown even to his wife, on occasional assignments for British intelligence.
As the novel begins, Salvo is preparing to leave his (white) wife (who is preparing to leave him) for a nurse named Hannah. Hannah is also from the Congo, and as Salvo's marriage has descended to superficial acts of going through the motions at fashionable parties, his affair with the idealistic Hannah has ignited, another metaphorical reflection of the novel's arc, as Salvo, the Congolese child come to England and become an Englishman, has his African consciousness reawakened.
Just as he's preparing to move out, he gets a call from his handler in British Intelligence, who needs him for a quick assignment. A couple of days acting as interpreter (and spy) at a meeting between Congolese power brokers, where supposedly they will engineer the putting in place of a liberal, pro-democratic leader to end the ongoing strife there, and through the beneficent auspices of Her Majesty's government, Salvo will thus help engineer stability and prosperity for the Congo.
Right, how likely is that?
It's all the subtle details that made this book a great read. Le Carré works his themes hard (and one could even say he's grinding a bit of an axe), but he also knows his writer's craft. Every introspective thought Salvo has is reflected in some way in the meta-narrative. He arrives at the North Sea island where he is to perform his interpreting work and is questioned by an arrogant European financial freelancer of some sort who's also been contracted just for this job. Trying to establish himself as a highly-paid professional, Salvo tells the European that he is being paid USD $5000 for two days' work... only for the accountant to laugh in derision at such a paltry fee. Salvo realizes that he's being sold very cheaply indeed by his employers and HMS alike, as he comes to realize that his homeland is also being sold for the benefit of a much wealthier European syndicate.
One thing that annoys the heck out of me when less skilled writers craft a story (this is especially apparent in YA novels) is the tendency to write characters ignoring or dismissing anything that has been left ambiguous. A meaningful look, an odd sound, an ill-chosen word, or something that just isn't quite right? Hack/YA authors will let their characters notice these things so that the reader can pick up on the foreshadowing, but the character will ultimately do nothing about it since, well, he or she isn't quite sure what it all meant. Until the other shoe drops. Le Carré doesn't do that. Things happen because two men's eyes meet for a second too long and an entire unspoken dialog transpires as a result. When Salvo finds something missing in his bag, he knows what it means, who did it, and why, he doesn't stumble around suspecting but waiting until it's confirmed.
So if there's one thing I fault about this book, it is Salvo's naivete. Now, in one respect, it's the entire point of the novel: Bruno Salvador is living the dream in a happy bubble of culture and affluence, and he thinks he's on the side of the angels, getting well paid to help both his adopted and his native country. It is his role to be disillusioned and then outraged as he finds out that most everything he's believed is a lie. But after the first inevitable betrayal, everyone but Salvo can see the next one coming a mile away. I know, again, Le Carré was trying to make a point as Salvo has to have his idealism repeatedly knocked down and kicked in the face, but a character can only keep leading with his chin so many times before you want to slap him. By the end, I was groaning a bit, as Salvo only began catching on as quickly as he should after it was too late.
That's a small criticism, though. It worked for Salvo's character, though I found it very frustrating, and the novel never slackened in its pace. The ending is much less happy than one could hope for but considerably less horrible than it could have been.
Verdict: A great contemporary espionage/political thriller with complex, conflicted characters and deeply resonating themes. The Mission Song is not a perfect novel (suffering from just a bit of predictability and main character obtuseness), but it's close to perfection if you like a good story and good characters in the murky, ugly real world of neo-colonial politics.
Also by John le Carré: My review of The Spy Who Came in from the Cold.