Book Review of The Mission Song by John le Carre
With the end of the Cold War, authors of spy thrillers have had to turn to different forms of deceit, betrayal, and double-crossing to provide the suspense in their novels. Fortunately, there’s still plenty of that behavior to be mined for fictional purposes.
In The Mission Song, John le Carre uses a mix of politics and business to provide the thrills and plot twists. Perhaps it’s a bit ironic that the new villains and their actions seem more realistic and believable than the shadowy world of spying. The fate of the world doesn’t hang in the balance, unless it’s your corner of the world they’ve targeted for their actions.
The protagonist at the center of The Mission Song is Bruno “Salvo” Salvador, the son of an Irish missionary and a Congolese woman. He never knew his mother and his father died when he was a boy. He was raised in mission schools in an area of eastern Congo called Kivu, and then in an English boarding school for Catholic orphans.
He’s always had a love for words and languages, and as an adult, he’s a top-flight interpreter. His African upbringing has taught him not just French and Swahili, but many of the different dialects spoken in Kivu. It’s been an indispensable talent for those who need an interpreter for business dealings where the parties speak a multitude of languages. Salvo has learned to provide these services impersonally, not allowing his own feelings or personality to intrude in the process.
In many ways, he’s a successful black man in England. His interpreter skills are in demand, not just by businesses and social causes, but also by British Intelligence who wants him to translate intercepted messages and conversations. He’s married to Penelope, the highly visible star reporter for a national paper, although the marriage is a little rocky.
She married Salvo as more of a taunt to her own family, thumbing her nose at convention by having a wealthy white woman marry a common black man. Salvo suspects she’s having an affair, and as The Mission Song opens, Salvo has fallen into an affair of his own. He’s met a Congolese nurse and he’s infatuated with everything about her, and being with her pulls on his heart strings for his African home.
British Intelligence provides Salvo with a potential new assignment, and he has to make up his mind about it immediately and without knowing much about it. He’s quickly given a new identity and flown to an unknown remote island where he’s to provide interpreter skills for a conference where the main participants are from Kivu.
Leaders from the different ethnic tribes in Kivu are to be present as well as government operatives. Kivu is an area rich in mineral resources, but these have been typically controlled by other countries, especially Rwanda, and the Congolese people are left to fight among themselves and live a life of poverty.
The plan is to stage a bloodless coup, install an aging, wise, and peace-loving man as the new leader, kick out the Rwandans, unite the different tribes, and let a faceless Western business syndicate operate the mines. The profits from the mines will be used for the people of Kivu, to build needed infrastructure and escort in a period of peace and prosperity for all.
Salvo is thrilled to help in any plan that brings peace and hope to his homeland. He’s instructed to act as if the only languages he can translate are English, French, and Swahili, so that he can eavesdrop on private conversations when the Africans retreat to their own dialects.
In a basement room, he can hear conversations everywhere on the island that have been wired with hidden microphones. Some of these overheard conversations are part of his assignment and others he eavesdrops on without permission. In the process, he realizes that not everyone is working to the same plan. What he can do about it, if anything, drives the plot forward to the end of the novel.
The Mission Song can be divided into three sections. The first section tells of Salvo’s upbringing and his current life in London. Despite being an intelligent and successful man, Salvo is also incredibly naive and gullible. He’s downright annoying with his idealistic fervor towards love and country and also with his inability to stay within his newly assumed persona and fictionalized life as he sets off for his secret assignment.
He’s deeply in love with Hannah after spending one night with her. His immaturity in other aspects of his life leaves you with the feeling that he lacks the maturity to recognize or fully realize true love. While his instant deep affection for Hannah rekindles a longing for his homeland, there’s a falseness to the validity of his love due to his naiveté. This section moves slowly and, mostly because of Salvo’s character, comes across as a bit unbelievable.
The second section, which takes up at least half of the novel, is Salvo’s role during the secret negotiations on the island. This is John le Carre at his best. Through Salvo’s roles as interpreter and eavesdropper, we see all the different forces that come in to play in deciding the future of Kivu. The history and rivalries of the different ethnic groups in Kivu become part of the fabric of intrigue as Salvo learns of secret agendas, lies and misdirections, and the brokering of power and wealth in which everyone involved wants their portion of the ill-gotten goods.
Each of the main players here defies stereotype as John le Carre’s research has created realistic characters driven by their own rationale to either hold to ancient beliefs and rivalries or to claim to release them for the good of the country. For the most part, Salvo is just a vehicle to convey this suspense as he discovers the real reasons behind each character’s motives and the truth about what is really planned for Kivu.
The last section of the novel finds Salvo back in London trying to find a way to stop the coup that is about to occur in Kivu. He’s smart enough to know that this places both him and Hannah in danger and he does his best to protect her and to hide from those who wish to stop him.
His immaturity and gullibility work against him, though, and prevents him from knowing whom he can trust, if anyone. This is a John le Carre novel, so you know you can’t assume good will triumph over evil or that his hero will eventually succeed, but suffice it to say that you can’t expect his denouement to be predictable either.
Despite Salvo never becoming a truly likeable, or even completely believable, character, The Mission Song is an enjoyable and eye-opening novel. Once John le Carre delves deep into the story of Kivu and the forces that have plundered its wealth and conspire to keep doing so, The Mission Song is as suspenseful as any spy novel.
We’ve all seen the news reports of the never-ending ethnic and nationalistic violence in the eastern Congo and shake our heads at the inevitability of it. By bringing to life characters that are representative of the different forces that lie at the root of that violence, John le Carre shows there is plenty of blame to go around.
Both Western businesses who want its wealth for their own and Congolese leaders who prefer their cut of that wealth to their own populace’s detriment come under scrutiny here. It doesn’t leave any hope that this situation will ever change, but it does make you wish there was a way. You won’t see news reports about the eastern Congo in the same way anymore.
The editor of The Readers Loft, and pursuer of relatively interesting information, Simon has a Masters Degree in Creative Writing and Journalism from the University of Wales, and is a photo-journalist and writer whose written and photographic work has been represented by the AFP news agency and appeared in newspapers across Europe and Asia.