October 18, 2006

Between The Covers

If John Le Carré's latest spy adventure signals its bad guys too easily, that's OK because The Mission Song, his 20th novel, delivers something surprising — for him: impassioned political and social commentary and a story of true love.

Its London-based narrator, Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo, is, reputedly, a brilliant interpreter, a coffee-colored illegitimate son of an Irish priest who had gone to the Congo years ago and fell in love with the beautiful daughter of a local chieftain, both of whom became brutalized victims of Congolese civil war.

It's not clear until the shocking end of The Mission Song to whom Bruno is addressing his narrative and where he is as he tells it, but his story proves compelling early on, mainly for its unsparing account of internecine wars in Africa and its depiction of how corrupt, venal, manipulative powers, western and native alike, exploit and frustrate efforts at peace.

Le Carré's knowing exploration of nasty high-level international corporate intrigue seethes with moral outrage, especially at so-called civilized nations and humanitarian spokesmen, black and white, who readily sell out those who believe in them. An epigraph from Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness hints at the journey naïve Salvo undertakes as he accepts a mysterious, quasi-government commission to put his expertise at the service of so-called humane goals.

Readers with minimal knowledge of the Democratic Republic of Congo, particularly its eastern province Kivu, or those whose sense of sub-Saharan violence has been dulled by media reports of repeated violence in the region, will be rewarded by Le Carré's astute observations and careful research, though they will not be happy with his conclusions.

As the story begins, 29-year-old Salvo is living with his slightly older, upper-crust wife, a dynamo journalist who enjoys a high position in a newspaper empire (not to mention the bed of its CEO). Because of Salvo's Congolese background, he is hired to attend a (bugged) no-name conference organized by a no-name syndicate at a no-name place in the North Sea. No spy, the innocent and idealistic Salvo willingly takes on the job, primarily to continue his deepening love affair with the oddly named Hannah, a black nurse he has recently met, a soul mate at last.

The weekend meeting will, purportedly, present a startling plan to bring together African warlords and set the country on the way to prosperity, while giving, of course, first crack at mining money to the syndicate heads. But the instructions are that Salvo is not to let on that he knows regional dialects, which some attendees may drift off to speak in order to spin private deals. They do, of course, and Salvo, who overhears them, interprets for his UK handlers.

The Mission Song — the title refers to a Kivu chant Salvo remembers from his days as a "secret child" in a seminary — contains fascinating lore on the role of interpreters, as opposed to translators, and on the art of rendering political language with appropriate but diplomatic nuance. It also provides some disturbing glimpses into the homosexual life of celibate brothers running mission schools abroad. As the plot thickens — not without comic moments — it becomes increasingly clear that there is little difference in corporate greed and the abuse of power between big and small nations, white and black.

And although Salvo is a winning throwback to earlier days in fiction when heroes could still take courageous stances and make a difference, he becomes a tragic reminder of the present world where syndicates rule, not individuals. Is corruption so pervasive that no one escapes? Are the inexperienced and therefore misguided efforts of those who would serve the cause of truth and justice not only infantile but dangerous?

If Melville's Billy Budd comes to mind (and it should), The Mission Song may be seen as a more vicious version of what happens when innocents wander out to reform a world where evil so naturally infects governments and corporations, indistinguishable from one another at the highest levels, that it becomes merely the cynical bottom line of real politick Check out p. 212, where the name "Halliburton" appears.

The Mission Song by John Le Carré. Little Brown & Co., 343 pp., $26.99

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