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The Mission Song

by John le Carre

About.com Rating 4 Star Rating


The Mission Song
It makes perfect sense that John le Carré is not John le Carré. Rather, this is the pseudonym for David Cornwell. He was born in Dorset, the son of Ronnie Cornwell who was a swindler and served time in prison. Perhaps, David came by his fascination with secrets naturally for things are never quite what they seem to be in his world. He made his name writing mysteries set in the Cold War. That ended and he turned to contemporary politics in Absolute Friends.

For years le Carré denied any connection with espionage for Britain although he never denied that he worked for the British Foreign Service in West Germany. Kim Philby, the notorious double agent, betrayed le Carré and others, giving their names to the Russians. Call For the Dead (1961), his first novel, introduced George Smiley and the rest, as they say, is literary history. His books are based on the hidden life, filled with misdirection, and rife with false names. Bruno Salvador, the protagonist, becomes Brian Sinclair for a weekend and the plot is away.
The Mission Song is his 20th novel. The overall quality has been remarkably high and this is no exception. Le Carré turns his focus to East Africa, specifically the Congo, but all the action occurs in England. Bruno Salvador is a language interpreter - think of those who translate for the United Nations. Highly skilled in a number of African languages and dialects, he is chosen for a weekend conference at which some private British interests join forces with three warlords from Congo to establish a revered figure, the Mwangaza, as the ruler.

The epigraph from Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" says it succinctly: "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." Bruno looks into his assignment too closely, identifies with one of the participants, and resolves to make a difference in the world.

Bruno has a back story. He is the son of an Irish Catholic Priest and a Congolese woman, hence the hint of salvation in his name. Bruno is married to Penelope, but falls in love (in England) with a Congolese nurse named Hannah. It is true love, but it could be his undoing; the ending is unclear on this point. Bruno loves Hannah and Congo and cannot allow the "coup" to take place. He tries to do the right things, but those to whom he turns always have another layer to be unpeeled.
The noted historian H. W. Brands said in a recent talk that he writes to two audiences, those who have to read his histories and those who read them for enjoyment. In the latter case, he tries to ensure there is something on every page to ensure his readers keep turning the page. So it is with le Carré. There is something here to keep the reader turning every page right to the end. Will Bruno's conscience/internal conflict carry him to a good end or not? Is Hannah simply a nurse trying to gain more education? Are the warlords' goals transparent?

One of the warlords is standing in for his father. Haj seems to be a dandy who is in the game for purely mercenary reasons. The novel explores the link between politics and business interests and we discover that, for all his faults, Haj is made of sterner stuff. Somehow, he and Bruno/Brian connect and their destinies play out together. Bruno/Brian says of Haj, "We were both hybrids: I by birth, he by education. We had both taken too many steps away from the country that had borne us to belong anywhere with ease."
Le Carré makes it clear which side is in the right within the world of the novel. Those countries that choose to invade another for financial gain, cloaked in the language of establishing a just and democratic government, are no better than the corrupt government which already exists. This may well be a not-so-oblique reference to the involvement of the United States in Iraq. In 2003 le Carré wrote in The Times, "How Bush and his junta succeeded in deflecting America's anger from bin Laden to Saddam Hussein is one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history." Bruno tries to employ a public relations tactic to stop the plans put together by the war lords, but events set in motion are difficult to recall.

You will have to read this compelling novel to find out how his plan works, but you can enjoy it without a thought to its modern implications of international hegemony.

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