Tuesday, 16 October 2007

John le Carré: The Mission Song (2006)

Published: Hodder, 2007

Since Midnight's Children, the legacy of colonial rule has been a popular choice of theme for literary authors, with at least one novel of this type appearing in most year's Booker Prize short list (and frequently proving less than enjoyable in my annual reading of the books on that list). The Mission Song is le Carré's second novel on this theme, after the interesting The Constant Gardener.

The Mission Song is about the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, along the border with Uganda and Rwanda. Congo is, to most Westerners, still Conrad's Heart of Darkness: its colonial and post colonial history among the most troubled on the African continent (see the Wikipedia article on the country). In the east, the Rwandan genocide filled the country with refugees and ethnic tension (there were ethnic Tutsi living on the Congolese side of the border before, during, and after the killing). Remote from Congo's capital Kinshasa, the region seems rife for independence; at least, that is the view of the power brokers who are the subjects of The Mission Song.

The narrator, Bruno Salvador, is (by his own reckoning) a top class interpreter who also happens to come from the region, though his background, as the child of an Irish Catholic priest and a local woman makes him an outsider both in Africa and in London where he now lives. This doesn't prevent him being recruited as a proud member of the British Secret Service - he obviously feels that he is accepted by the establishment and working for the good guys.

It is in this role that he is asked to attend a secret meeting between some of the important regional leaders from the eastern Congo. Bruno, under another name, works as their interpreter, but the meeting's participants are unaware of the full range of languages he speaks, and the organisers also use him to provide fuller translations, including transcripts from bugs planted around the hotel. At the start, he recognises some of the participants and admires the principles they adhere to; but this level of access leads to disillusionment as he is privy to the deals, bribes, and even torture which are used to get final agreement to go ahead with an attempted coup in the region.

It is usual in this kind of novel to dwell on the atmosphere of the country in which it is set (done marvellously in, say, The God of Small Things), but almost the entire narrative of The Mission Song takes place in an anonymous European hotel: this book is about the impotency of those who live in Africa, when the decisions which effect their lives are made in such places. The reader never gets to know the identities of the conference sponsors. Only the early reminiscences of Bruno's childhood are set in the Congo.

While slow moving, The Mission Song grips through the depiction of Salvador, whose name is clearly ironic: he is a passive observer of events, not an actor, and certainly not a saviour. He delights in his job, especially the honour of being asked to join the Secret Service, and le Carré's depiction of his naive enjoyment is entertaining and well done, as is the despair alternating with optimism that is the result of his discovery that men he had previously admired were as venal and self serving as any behind their public image.

There is perhaps not much here for fans of George Smiley, but The Mission Song is an indication of the literary quality of le Carré's work: much better and more thought provoking than most of those Booker shortlisted post-colonial novels.

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