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Reviews of Mission Song, the (2006)

Review by philipspires (2008-04-09)
In The Mission Song John le Carré re-visits the world of espionage that we associate with his writing. He is a master of the clandestine, the deniable, the re-definable. Bruno Salvador is a freelance linguist. His parentage is complex, his origins confused, but his skills beyond question. By virtue of an upbringing that had many influences, he develops the ability to absorb languages. Having lived in francophone Africa and then England, he is fluent in both English and French plus an encyclopaedia of central African languages. His unique gifts, considerable skills and highly idiosyncratic methods qualify him for occasional assignments as an interpreter. He is trusted. He is also, he discovers, pretty cheap, and already has considerable experience of working for those aspects of government and officialdom which sometimes transgress legality. He is also, therefore, vulnerable. So when a new assignment – so urgent that he has to skip his wife’s party – drags him to a secret destination, he initially takes everything very much in his stride.

But Bruno is much more than a linguist, certainly much more than a translator and, as a result of the application of conscience, considerably more than the interpreter his employers have hired. His perception of language is so acute that it provides him with an extra sense, a means of interpreting the world, no less, not just a method of eliciting meaning. But he also has the intellectual skills to identify consequences, to interpret motives. And it is here where he begs to differ with his paymasters.

The Mission Song is the kind of book where revelation of the plot, beyond this mere starting point, would undermine the experience of reading it. Suffice it to say that Bruno’s task is both what is seems to be and also not what it seems. Bruno’s ambivalence in relation to its aims prompts him to go beyond the call of duty. And, in doing so, he learns more about his near-anonymous employers. But, of course, they learn more about him, a reality that eventually has fairly dire consequences.

The Mission Song is also a love story, or two, one on the way in and one on the way out. It’s also about privilege and power, plus their use, misuse and abuse. In many ways it inhabits similar territory to John le Carré’s Absolute Friends, but is singularly more successful, especially in the credibility of the eventual denouement.

Fans of John le Carré will need no convincing. For those who have found his work less than satisfying, The Mission Song shows the author at his best, presenting a complex, highly credible plot in a skilful, illuminating, informative and yet entertaining way. Its eventual message about the abuse of power is subtly threaded into the very substance of the plot and makes its point with strength and relevance. We know a little more about the world by the end.

(This review refers to the 2006 version titled “The Mission Song”)

Review by SlowRain (2006-10-31)
The Mission Song is John le Carré's newest novel. It is centered around Bruno Salvador - a half-British, half-Congolese interpreter of numerous obscure African languages - as he's whisked away by British Intelligence to a secret conference between the representatives of a Western-backed syndicate of politicians and celebrities, an ambitious Congolese leader preaching reform, and three Congolese warlords. The goal of this clandestine conference is none other than changing the government in the resource rich Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo... for the benefit of the Congolese people, of course.

First off, le Carré has been on a slide since the end of the Cold War. He still writes better novels than all the other thriller writers out there, but he's had a hard time recapturing his glory days. The Mission Song is right up there with Our Game as the best of his post-Cold War novels, and it definitely finds a place of honor among his better works as well. Like his previous two novels, Absolute Friends (2003) and The Constant Gardener (2000), it has a more obvious political theme than some of his others, but this time he manages to make his theme blend well with the plot.

The Mission Song is one man's reawakened sense of identity and conscience; Bruno has to decide how much he's going to allow Western interests to interfere with a society that has witnessed one of the bloodiest wars since the end of World War Two. He has choices to make: loyalty to his employers or his conscience; loyalty to his manipulating country or a manipulated people; loyalty to his all-white, career minded, adulterating wife or a Congolese nurse. The book also discusses, ultimately, whose responsibility it is to get Congo - and, by extension, Africa - back on track; and I'm sure a few politicians, singers, and actors will be surprised by the discussion.

Le Carré's narrative is extremely engaging and his characters are larger than life. He never spells anything out for the reader, but offers enough hints for those who pay attention. Even though he has a political ax to grind over Britain's involvement in the Iraq War, and grind it he does, he still isn't preachy. And his dialogue is both brilliant and creative, definitely up there with David Mamet's.

I really enjoyed the novel as a thriller, as well as for the awareness and vast amount of information about Congo, it's troubles, Rwanda's involvement, coltan et cetera. Even though the events in the novel span less than a week, I wouldn't recommend it for people who love fast-paced thrillers; this is a novel for the patient reader. A rewarding novel.

©Steven Jeffery /, 2017
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