THE INEPT SPY – November 2006

The Mission Song  by John LeCarré

Reviewed by Rima Walker

With about 20 books under his belt, LeCarré once again shows us the heart of darkness that exists in government, institutions, big business, and in people.  While his novels revolve around suspense and espionage, his true message comes through the characters who experience the results of cynicism and greed.

The Mission Song is a departure from LeCarré’s cold war novels and the world-weary men and women who inhabit them. Since the cold war ended, LeCarré turned to other themes to carry his message.

Bruno Salvador, called Salvo, a master language interpreter of French and many African languages, is the illegitimate child of a white missionary and an African woman in the Congo.  After his father’s death, he is sent to England to a religious school for the “secret sons of Rome”. Brother Michael becomes young Salvo’s rescuer when Salvo is rejected by both white and black; he is Salvo’s teacher and friend. He recognizes Salvo’s gift of language and knows this will become Salvo’s passport to a successful life in England although he worries about Salvo’s naïveté and need to be accepted.

Salvo marries a white woman who works as a successful journalist.  But once he meets and falls in love with Hannah, a Congolese nurse he meets in London, he realizes how false his marriage is.  He is taken on by British intelligence to interpret at a highly secret meeting on an unnamed island and also to spy on those who attend.  At this meeting, unnamed syndicate members and Congolese warlords plan a coup to place a  peace-loving leader, Mwangaza, in control of the government.  He will stabilize it through a form of democracy in which various warlords work together for the country’s good rather than commit barbaric acts of torture and genocide. This will happen through the sale of the natural resources in which the Congo abounds. Part of the great profits will go to the people to free them from disease, hunger, poverty, terrorism, and death. Salvo, vain about his abilities, does this gladly, never considering a hidden agenda, only to discover that all was not what it seemed. Salvo, who believes in the goodness of people and never suspects their motives, learns what is really happening when he eavesdrops on the conference members through the bugs planted in the rooms and the gardens of the conference site. Idealistic as he is, he wants to make all of this right. How he tries, and what happens to him and Hannah, take up the rest of the story.

Although at times the tone is light and sometimes humorous, the message is not.  The world is not a paradise, the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and ordinary people are victimized and exploited through war, greed, and racism. The suspense is as intricate as in all LeCarré novels, his main characters are real and LeCarré cares for them and deplores what becomes their lot. I take issue with some critics who feel LeCarré’s novels are unrealistic.  Sometimes parts of the plot may be, but his characters are not and neither are they shallow.  They do their jobs, feel joy and suffering, endure as best they can despite treachery and deceit, and we come to know them well and empathize. ~