- The Washington Times - Saturday, September 16, 2006

THE MISSION SONG

By John le Carre

Little Brown, $26.99, 344 pages

The end of the Cold War set the career of master spy novelist John le Carre on an unusually bumpy course. Far from the days of resounding — and virtually unadulterated — praise for his early novels “The Spy Who Came in from the Cold” and the trilogy “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” “The Honourable Schoolboy” and “Smiley’s People,” Mr. le Carre took up causes in his later books that drew charges that the author was anti-Semitic and anti-American.

In “Absolute Friends,” the novel that preceded the one currently under review, the author’s opposition to the Iraq war — and long, polemical passages averring such — ultimately burdened what came close to being a very good story. In it, readers had to traverse land mines of political grandstanding by the author to the detriment of a tale about a mixed-race Englishman who takes up spying, first for radical causes and then for England.

When the prepublication galley of “The Mission Song” arrived in the office, I approached it with trepidation. It did not help that the galley came with a marketing insert noting that in “Absolute Friends,” Mr. le Carre predicted that “the Iraq war would be based on phony and manipulated intelligence.” Oh dear, I thought. Here we go again.

But, it turns out, such is not the case. “The Mission Song” is (relatively) polemic-free, and the story Mr. le Carre weaves is a vigorous one, replete with suspense, shifting alliances, a strong central character and a vivid portrait of a besieged Africa, an Africa no less turbulent or alluring than the Africa of “The Constant Gardener.”

There is no getting away from the fact that a strong anti-colonialist, anti-capitalist streak courses through Mr. le Carre’s veins. Nevertheless, and especially relative to “Absolute Friends,” “The Mission Song” is a felicitous study in restraint.

The protagonist is once more a biracial Englishman, this time a man named Bruno “Salvo” Salvador. He is 29 years old, an orphaned “love child” of a Catholic Irish missionary and a Congolese woman. Raised in Kivu, an East Congolese province, his earliest experiences of life were shaped at a Mission School. There, his mentor Brother Michael got him interested — almost obsessively so — in the wide array of African languages that in the end would qualify him to be a professional interpreter.

In young adulthood, Salvo is quickly able to put his remarkable facility with languages to work in projects he pursues with London corporations, hospitals, law firms and — in what should be the biggest prize of all — British Intelligence.

The main action of the story takes place in an unnamed destination where Salvo is sent for a short time to act as an interpreter between Western financiers and East Congolese warlords. However, in the course of his work, it turns out that the putative good guys are not so good.

The book pivots on Salvo’s interpretings of a wheeler-dealer operator named Haj, who is part of the contingent meeting to devise a future for Congo. Tormented by another Arab who does not take kindly to his sub-Saharan brother, Haj is ultimately tortured. What Haj says and later, in anguish, hums is inadvertently caught on Salvo’s tape recorder and leads the interpreter to certain important discoveries.

The book also pivots on a love story with the beautiful Hannah, a Congolese woman not Salvo’s wife, but with whom he develops a deep connection:

“To provide factual accounts of ourselves we spoke English. For our Lovemaking we spoke French. And for our dreams of Africa, how could we not return to the Congolese-flavored Swahili of our childhoods with its playful mix of joy and innuendo? In the space of twenty sleepless hours Hannah had become the sister, lover and good friend who had consistently failed to materialise throughout my peripatetic childhood.”

It might have been nice to read this book and find that in its entirety there were no cheap shots at George Bush or Tony Blair (one of the conferees wearing Ray-Ban sunglasses, gold necklaces and Texan boots is described as standing “thumbs Blair-Bush style” in his Gucci belt”) but that is a lot to ask of Mr. le Carre.

Nevertheless, with this book and its remarkable outcome, one cannot help but feel that the author has lost some of his unbridled anger. The writing is solid and well paced. And even with the constraints imposed by the thriller genre, it manages to gracefully contextualize the quote from Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness” that opens the book:

“‘The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much.’ — Marlow.” John le Carre keeps looking and, in this book at least, readers are the better for it.

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