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The Mission Song is the story of roughly seventy-two hours in the life of Bruno Salvador, better known to his wife, friends, and co-workers as Salvo. Salvo is a twenty-eight year-old, half-Congolese, half-Northern Irish subject of the British crown, whose father was a Catholic priest in the Eastern Congo when it was known as Zaire. Salvo has light skin and straight hair, and looks more like a tanned Irishman than a vitiligo-inflicted Congolese. He is gifted with an impressive ability to learn languages, his portfolio including French, Swahili, Shi, Kinyarwanda, and several other Eastern African dialects. Salvo works as a translator for one of the secret British security services, also taking on various freelance assignments on the side. He has participated in international conferences and secret negotiations of the utmost importance, and views the translator as an integral player in the world of international politics. And how could they not be? Not all international leaders speak the same language (however hard it may be to believe, many people, including global players, do not speak English), and so the translator serves as a mediator between worlds, not merely changing words and sentences from one language to another, but also capturing tone and intent. It is a difficult task, yet Salvo is very good at what he does.
Salvo, who is married to a respected white journalist named Penelope, is thrust into a special assignment concerning the Democratic Republic of the Congo, shedding his identity to assume a fabricated one. The novel follows Salvo's recounting of his experience as he encounters fascinating characters from across the globe, most of whom are involved in the planning of a shift in leadership in the Congo. The savior of this movement is an elderly professor named Mwangaza, who favors a middle path that will bring peace and prosperity to the people of the Congo. But how easy will this transition of power be, and how much corruption will be involved? Anyone with even the slightest knowledge of African history knows that the Congo has been one of the most volatile nations in all of Africa, from the cruelty and colonization of Belgium's King Leopold II to the CIA-supported assassination of Patrice Lumumba in 1961 to the authoritarian rule of Joseph Mobutu throughout the 1970s and 1980s. The Rwandan civil war and its genocide spilled into the Congo in 1996, leading to two Congolese wars, and today the Congo remains one of the most fragile African nations.
A cursory glance of the book jacket (which features a placid zebra) or the first 100 pages of The Mission Song would give the appearance that this is a much lighter and less consequential effort than other le Carré works, such as his devastating The Spy Who Came In from the Cold or his last novel, the searing Absolute Friends. Yet The Mission Song is more than it appears to be. Beneath the surface lies a telling statement on the current state of the world, and also of Africa's place in the proverbial pecking order of power. Africans in the novel are not free of guilt or complicity, but le Carré portrays them mainly as pawns in the global scramble for resources. Yet hope is not completely lost, as not all the African players in this tale are willing to sacrifice their country for financial riches.
Le Carré is, as ever, a master of narrative. The plot is not as labyrinthine as, say, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy or The Perfect Spy, but it is complex enough to require several re-readings of pages at times. Le Carré also displays his complete mastery of the English language. No sentence, no word, no pause is wasted. Watch as he describes a duel - played out in secret and in several languages - between Salvo and a Congolese conspirator named Haj, who is the purported villain of the story:
"It's Haj's Shi and Haj's tapdancing and Haj's lunging and ducking versus Salvo's thieving ears... He's pirouetting, his voice goes up and down and all around, a bit of Shi, a bit of Kinywarwanda, then a bit of French argot to complicate the mix... I'm dancing too, if only in my head, I'm up there on the stone steps dueling saber to saber with Haj..."
Le Carré grapples with weighty issues here, but there is more than the Congo at stake. Beyond the consequences of war in Africa, the soul of Salvo is tortured throughout the novel. He will have to make several crucial decisions about his life, including whether or not to leave his wife for a black African nurse who he has supposedly fallen in love with. This novel depicts Salvo's internal struggle as he lives in two worlds, one in war-torn Congo and the other in Savile Row Britain. He is striped black and white, exactly like a zebra, and by the end of his ordeal he must choose which color and country to remain loyal to.
John le Carré has never shied from controversy, nor has he ever danced around sensitive subjects. He is ardently opposed to the Iraq War, which he made patently clear in Absolute Friends and in several prominent newspaper editorials. In The Mission Song, le Carré deals briefly with terror, but concentrates most of his energy on confronting head-on the tragedy of Africa. Thousands die there every day, but true compassion seems to elude us. Are we cognizant of the famine, devastation, and death? No, le Carré says. There are no yellow ribbons, no "support our Africans" stickers on the bumpers of SUVs, no daily death count in the supposedly liberal press, and no outraged public over African suffering. As in The Constant Gardner, le Carré depicts a West that is myopic and malevolent, and only interested in raping Africa of its natural riches. King Leopold's shadow has yet to disappear. The inaction of the United States, the United Kingdom, and the United Nations angers le Carré. The manipulations and machinations of multi-national conglomerates infuriate him. He has lost faith in the ability or desire of governments to care. "If we wait for the UN to bring us peace," one character announces, "we shall wait until our children are dead, and our grandchildren too."
As civil war rages, genocide deaths mount, and AIDS ravages the Congo, Darfur, and nearly everywhere else in Africa, le Carré reminds us, ever-so subtly, of the folly of the Iraq War and the war on terror, and also of the West's continued neglect of Africa. Are there not better places to spend billions of dollars than the war on terror? Hundreds of thousands of African lives have needlessly disappeared. The West claims that the war on terror trumps everything, yet thousands of Africans continue to die in the meantime. But there is no lofty rhetoric, no coalition of the willing to bring democracy and peace to Africa. As always, le Carré argues, Africans are left completely on their own with nary a care from the former colonizers that created this menagerie of death and suffering. Instead, America, Great Britain, and its allies focus on the enigmatic enemy of "terror," leaving the Dark Continent to fend for itself. The only ones who seem to care are the corporations, who want nothing more than to take whatever raw materials from Africa that they can.
"You see the same old, old faces of the same old, old crooks," one character laments. A prescient observation indeed. The Mission Song is le Carré as masterful as ever, a worthy meditation on a neglected world that is in desperate need of our attention. SEE ALSO: www.johnlecarre.com
Eric J. Morgan
Originally from Cleveland, Ohio, Eric J. Morgan is a Ph.D. candidate in history at the University of Colorado. He has an orange cat named Nelson and longs for the day when men and women will again dress in three-piece suits and pretty dresses to indulge in three-martini lunches and afternoon affairs.
See other articles by Eric J. Morgan.
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