The Mission Song by John le Carré

Little Brown 2006  352 pp.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


Since the Fall of the Wall, John le Carré’s novels have drifted in and out of the spy business, moving from the East-West conflict to one more global and charged: the willingness of compliant governments to lend out their spy organizations to further private corporate interests.  This anti-democratic liaison was on best display in The Constant Gardner, and returns to us, in diminished form, in The Mission Song.

Bruno Salvador, a.k.a. Salvo, is 28, and a “top interpreter of Swahili and the lesser-known but widely spoken languages of the Eastern Congo.”  Although living in Britain, his linguistic gifts are fruits of his birth.  He is “the natural son of a bog Irish Roman Catholic missionary and a Congolese village woman.”  Salvo spent his childhood in Bukavu, on Lake Kivu, on the border between the Democratic Republic of the Congo (check your map: there are two Congos these days) and Rwanda, but owing to the attentions—sexual and professional—of Catholic friars in the region, was sent to England for his education.

Bi-racial, Salvo looks “more suntanned Irish than mid-brown Afro,” exotic enough to attract Penelope, “an upper-echelon Oxbridge journalist” with whom he’s been married for five years.  Both are modern professionals, in that they spend more time at their jobs than they do at their relationship. 

Salvo has transferred his religious sensibilities, like so many of le Carré’s characters, to his job: “The code of your top interpreter is sacrosanct.    He is pledged to his employer in the same manner that a soldier is pledged to the flag.”  After six years in the business, some of it working for the British government, he is enlisted on a top secret government assignment, translating at a conference of Congolese political and business leaders who are meeting with some well-placed British . . . let’s just say operatives.

Their collective business is the Eastern Congo: “Congo the laughing stock of Africa, raped, plundered, screwed up, bankrupt, corrupt, murderous, duped and derided, renowned by every country on the continent for its incompetence, corruption and anarchy.”  The British have enlisted the aid of Mwangaza, a charismatic Congolese firebrand who seems disinterestedly interested in democracy for the Congo.  Their aim?  “Delivering democracy at the end of a gun barrel to the Eastern Congo.”  With the capital, Kinshasa, 1300 miles away, it seems that the Kivu region—Goma to the north, Bukavu to the south, with the lake in between—is anybody’s possession.

Salvo’s job is to interpret and keep his mouth shut.  His concentration is distracted, owing to a recently developed love affair with Hannah, a Congolese nurse working in London, “a beautiful, laughing, desiring African woman who asks nothing of you, in any language, that you’re not prepared to give.” 

Complications ensue, following Salvo’s eavesdropping on conference conversations he shouldn’t.  Clearly, the parties involved have no interest in delivering democracy to Kivu, considering the presence of coltan, a substance that controls current flow in that cell phone in your pocket, the majority of which just happens to come from the Eastern Congo.  Salvo, in trying to rescue the country of his birth and that of his new lover, finds himself pitted against powerful dark forces.

As one of le Carré’s chartacters noted in Absolute Friends, “warfare is the extension of corporate power by other means.” This novel illustrates, from the inside, just how that works.  Unfortunately the book suffers from a couple of weaknesses.  The sure hand that has guided Le Carré in the creation of so many memorable characters has deserted him here.  Salvo is presented as “brilliant,” yet he even after six years in the translation business he behaves like an inquisitive undergraduate with his clandestine friends.  More doubtful is the trumped up relationship with Hanna, which occurs movie-fast.  While it’s clear that Salvo’s attraction to Hanna comes from her standing as a symbol of his lost childhood, we are not given enough of her, or them, to believe the steadfastness of their relationship.

For fans, The Mission Song will pass a few pleasant hours, but for most of us, we should await his next book (how old is this guy, anyway?) or turn to the competing pleasures of the novels of Alan Furst.