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When writing about the Cold War, le Carre is one of the great British novelists, although even then his work is patchy. When he strays into other areas his books are generally mediocre and appear, from his acknowledgements, to have been an excuse for his publishers to pay for his 'research' jaunts to obscure places producing nothing that could not have been obtained from his computer in Cornwall.
'The Mission Song' was clearly inspired by Mark Thatcher's Fred Karno's Army's 2004 attempt at a coup in Equatorial Guinea, and it's plot has elements of Forsyth's 'The Dogs of War' and the Burton film 'The Wild Geese'.
The book is generally entertaining and occasionally humourous, but le Carre utilises his usual tropes: the self-sacrificing 'hero', in this case a rather stupid mixed-race interpreter who, given his origins and expertise in several tribal languages, should realise that all African politicians, black or white, with the possible exception of Nelson Mandela, are corrupt and that the humanistic claims of the plotters are bogus; the cardboard cut-out sluts that represent his female characters and the mercenary thugs recycled from his other books.
This sort of thing is much better done by Frederick Forsyth, a former journalist who actually understands the media, mercenaries and Africa having reported on the Nigerian Civil War from the Biafran side.
When the Cold War ended, le Carré, the master of spy thrillers, turned to writing stories set in the third world, continuing the themes about which he clearly feels very strongly – corruption and betrayal. This one is set largely in an anonymous northern island, and is told in the first person by Bruno Salvador, a British citizen (or at least so he believes) who is sent to translate at a conference between a collection of conflicting Congolese tribal leaders/war lords and a shadowy organisation of nameless individuals called the Syndicate. An unnamed British government department has selected him because his background (an Irish Missionary father and a Congolese mother) means that he has acquired fluency in English, French, Swahili and a range of minor African languages. Bruno is initially pleased to help because of his empathy with the people of his homeland. The meeting is ostensibly about organizing a coup prior to planned elections, so that the ‘real’ democratic forces can seize control and the Syndicate can exploit the rich minerals for the benefit not only of themselves, but also of the Congolese people, who will receive the “People’s Portion”. Needless to say, all is not as it seems.
Bruno’s naïvity (and how can one so intelligent be so naïve?) is quickly stripped away as the relations between the Congolese delegates and the representatives of the Syndicate become clearer, and he becomes privy to an entirely different agenda. He is torn between his ethical principles and his professional duty as an impartial interpreter. When he chooses the former, and returns to London at the close of the conference he carries with him evidence of the coup. But remarkably he is still naïve enough to trust people in authority and so more betrayals occur. He is forced to go into hiding with a politically active Congolese nurse with whom he formed an instant romantic attachment after earlier having met her by chance while interpreting for a dying man in a London hospital. This part of the plot stretches credulity too far for me. In the end morality wins, but with serious consequences for him and his new girlfriend. At least they are alive; in real life I suspect they would have ‘disappeared’.
Overall the book is well-written and most of the characters are believable in terms of their dialogue and speech patterns, but the plot, which bears some resemblance to the notorious botched 2004 attempt to organize a coup in Equatorial Guinea that involved Mark Thatcher, is rather turgid and little more than a polemic against the wickedness of Western influence in Africa, even though most of the Congolese characters are just as venal. Reviewers have pointed out a number of weak plot features, which I agree with. For example: how is it that one of the Congolese ‘war lords’ is brutally tortured by agents of the Syndicate, but within a few hours appears at the conference table full of life and none the worse for his ordeal; why doesn’t Bruno copy his stolen material while on the run; and why was he not searched when he left the island at the end of the conference?
Le Carré has written many marvellous spy novels and some of his later efforts after the Cold War era are almost as good, but this is not one of them.
I found this Le Carre book heavy going and almost gave up on it. I persevered and was glad I did, although I don't regard this as anywhere near his best work. He spends far too much time setting the scene, so to speak, sometimes in laborious detail and I found myself just wishing he would get on with it. In fact I wanted to skip over or speed-read certain passages but didn't for fear of missing some salient point. The first six or so chapters describe how one Bruno Salvador, a multi-lingual African-born interpreter specialising in East African languages, who does occasional translation work for British Inteligence, is selected by said agency to go undercover. Given a cover and flown out to an unidentified island he is supposed to act as innocent interpreter at a high level meeting of Congolese tribal leaders, but who is also told he is to eavesdrop on their private conversations via bugged rooms etc. So far so Le Carre, but the narrative gets bogged down in the middle and it is not until chapter thirteen that the plot becomes interesting again and appears to be getting somewhere. The ending is unexpected and quite clever, but appeared rushed, almost as though the author himself had got bored and decided he'd better finish. In style this book was similar to Our Kind Of Traitor, which also took an inordinate length of time to set the scene before anything approaching action takes place.
For this novel Le Carre has chosen different characters in a different setting. The storyline has good pace and lots of interesting snippets along the way. He clearly does a lot of research for his books and this one is no different. I had wanted to hold this novel back for my holiday but I made the mistake of reading a few pages and that was it. I would rank it as one of his finest novels and I would recommend it to anyone.
I am a great fan if john le carre's and initially I was disappointed. The book started well and I enjoyed the quirkiness of the main character. However, the main bulk if the first half is set in one place with the same characters and takes a long time to set the book up for its finale. Thus section of the book is fine but didn't engage me enough. However, the final third, really picks up the pace and things slot nicely in to place. Overall, this is worth a read but is by no means amongst le carre's finest works.
I felt this had great promise but to be honest I was disappointed by the conclusion. I think I will try one of his other books and see if they are better. However it was well written and kept me occupied while on holiday.
As I love the spy genre, I've always been a fan of John le Carre's books but for some reason had missed this one when it first came out. However, having read it now on my Kindle, I can report that it is an excellent read. The author captures the 'voice' of Salvo, the main character, originally from the Congo, beautifully. The reader is engaged very quickly and the narrative moves at a steady pace when Salvo, a talented multi-linguist, occasionally employed by British Intelligence in a low-key role, finds himself approached by a shadowy organisation to do some serious translating at a secret location and becomes involved in the murky world of international espionage. And while it is by no means le Carre's greatest work it is nevertheless an absorbing and thought-provoking read, made all the more so by the author's wonderful use of language and his inside knowledge of the workings of the intelligence services. There is a strong moral dimension to the story, highly relevant to our contemporary lives and, despite the inevitable conclusion and Salvo's fate, allows for some optimism, though the author's anger at the duplicitous nature of how governments work is very clear. It made a really good holiday read. Highly recommended. Gordon Minto