Review: The Mission Song by John le Carre

14 September 2007

The Mission SongA John le Carre book is immediately recognisable. It is something about the way that the story is conveyed by the characters talking directly to you, confiding in you and flattering you into believing that you share in some arcane knowledge of how the world really works. The Mission Song does not disappoint.

In the earlier Cold War books of Smiley and Karla, the struggle between good and evil was, in the end, difficult to resolve – it was more of an espionage game played between professionals. In The Mission Song, as in The Constant Gardener, the stakes are higher, the anger is real and the sense of outrage palpable. This is another of le Carre’s stories of the small man caught up by more powerful forces, naive, perhaps, but not entirely innocent, and complicit to an extent in his own plight.

In this book, Bruno Salvador, or Salvo, is a part-time, contract interpreter and translator for the British Secret Service. Through accident and coincidence of genes, geography and fortune, and especially for his knowledge of Central African languages, Salvo finds himself sub-let by the British Secret Service to interpret at a meeting where a mysterious syndicate is trying to get the agreement from the hostile factions in a potentially wealthy region of the Congo that would give them independence in exchange for mineral and trade concessions. The events take place on a remote North Sea island where every room and and even the gardens are bugged. Salvo is privy to all of the conversations, and the story is about his increasing engagement with the unfolding of the plot to seize power in that part of the world that is his real home. In particular, he feels a chord of empathy with Haj, the son of a wealthy East Congolese trading family, who seems to respond to and recognise the link between them – exhibited, for Salvo, by Haj’s humming of an old Mission church jingle to show that he remains defiant, despite the pressures applied by the syndicate. The beauty of le Carre’s writing is that this complex set of events and characters and relationships seems entirely clear, logical and compelling. The rhythm of the book is well nigh perfect for the most part, which makes it very hard to put down.

Of course, nothing runs smoothly; it all ends in tears of one sort or another; the really guilty tend to go free; the pawns are destroyed or damaged. This includes Salvo, but having lost so much, he also finds something that may well be more important to him.

Details:Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton ISBN-10: 0316016756 ISBN-13: 978-0316016759

Other books by John le Carre: Call for the Dead, A Murder of Quality, The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, The Looking Glass War, A Small Town in Germany, The Naive and Sentimental Lover, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, Smiley’s People, The Little Drummer Girl, A Perfect Spy, The Russia House, The Secret Pilgrim,The Night Manager, Our Game, The Tailor of Panama, Single & Single, The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends