The Mission Song

Title:                      The Mission Song

Author:                  John le Carré

Le Carré, John (2006). The Mission Song. New York: Little, Brown and Co.

LCCN:    2006020099

PR6062.E33 M57 2006


Date Posted:      April 7, 2017

Review by Michiko Kakutani[1]

The hero of John le Carré’s clunky new novel, Bruno Salvador, a k a Salvo, seems at first glance like a perfect candidate to become another one of the author’s perfect spies. Like so many earlier le Carré characters, he’s an outsider by birth: his father was an Irish Catholic missionary, his mother a Congolese village woman. His job in London as a top-flight interpreter (proficient in English, French, Swahili and many lesser-known African languages) has amplified two qualities shared by many of the author’s heroes: a longing to be “all things to all men” and an “inextinguishable need to belong.”

When British intelligence, one of his part-time employers, outsources Salvo to a mysterious group known as the Syndicate, he suddenly finds himself working not in some boring backroom filled with other interpreters, but on a top-secret mission that he’s told is “good for the country, good for Congo, good for Africa.”

This chance to play at being a secret agent thrills the young man. He will have a chance to do great things: to help the country where he was born, as well as the country he now calls home, while playing an Important Role in History. At the same time, his excellent adventure will also help him impress the new love of his life, Hannah, who just happens to be from Congo, too.

Unfortunately for the reader, Mr. le Carré renders Salvo’s story with none of the nuance or chiaroscuro that distinguished his Cold War Smiley novels. Instead, his detestation of the West’s neocolonial ambitions has led him, as it did in his 2004 novel, Absolute Friends,[2] to write a high-minded but highly simplistic, black-and-white thriller, pitting some very good guys (i.e., Salvo and Hannah) against some very bad guys (in this case, a consortium of British politicians and multinational corporations, intent on mounting a coup in Congo to rob that long-suffering country of its mineral wealth).

The book’s epigraph, from Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, bluntly lays out the story’s moral: “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.”

Although Mr. le Carré has inhaled enough research to give the reader some vivid glimpses of Congo, his descriptions of Salvo’s childhood in this beautiful, troubled country feel oddly synthetic, as if his hero had been plucked from a Fielding or Defoe novel and summarily parachuted into 20th-century Africa. Salvo’s move to London and his social ascent there feel equally canned. As for his sudden recruitment by the Syndicate, it has all the plausibility of a contrived plot point in a cheesy straight-to-video movie.

From that point on, the narrative devolves into a static talkfest consisting largely of Salvo’s efforts, as an interpreter, to figure out just what the Syndicate is planning. He and the Syndicate leaders fly to a little island in the North Sea, where a conference has been convened with a Congolese leader named Mwangaza, who is supposed to represent a unification movement called the Middle Path.

Also present are three powerful warlords, who are supposed to be persuaded to put aside their differences and back the Syndicate’s plans: the ailing Dieudonné, who has ties to Rwanda; the suavely cosmopolitan Haj, the wealthy heir to a trading fortune, who “could instantly raise a miltia of 500 strong through his links with local headmen”; and the fearsome Franco, “an old-style Bembe warrior” who is a leader of the frightening Mai Mai militia. (We are talking, Salvo observes, “random, feckless murder, rape galore and a full range of atrocities under the influence of everything from leading-edge witchcraft to a gallon or two of Primus beer laced with palm wine.”)

Mr. le Carré gives us a tedious blow-by-blow account of what each of the conference participants has to say about the Syndicate’s proposal, and shows us, step by step, how Salvo figures out the Syndicate’s real motives. None of this is terribly suspenseful, since it’s pretty clear from the start what the nefarious Syndicate is really up to. And unlike many of the author’s earlier characters, who were torn between conflicting loyalties (to individuals, to countries, to assorted ideals and causes), Salvo has nothing to debate: on one side, there is the evil Syndicate; on the other side, there is Truth, Justice and the welfare of the country where he and Hannah grew up.

And so, the only remaining question becomes, How will Salvo try to thwart the Syndicate’s plans? To whom will he turn for help? Because this part of the novel pivots around Salvo’s rather shocking naïveté—his ability to continue to believe that two people he has long respected could not possibly be part of something wicked, despite heaps of evidence to the contrary—the reader is forced to feel irritation and pity for a character who could be so gullible: two emotions not exactly conducive to the making of a gripping thriller or a terribly engaging novel.

[1] Michiko Kakutani, “A Translator Searching for Words of His Own,” New York Times (September 26, 2006), downloaded April 7, 2017. A version of this review appears in print on , on Page E1 of the New York edition with the headline: “A Translator Searching For Words Of His Own.”

[2] Le Carré, John (2004). Absolute Friends. London: Hodder & Stoughton