The Mission Song — John le Carre

The Mission Song–John le Carre

Le Carre was the master of the cold-war spy novel, but rather than losing his way at the end of the cold war his books got more sophisticated and ambiguous, not to speak of bitter and angry. The Constant Gardener was a searing indictment of U.S. economic imperialism in Africa, and Absolute Friends was a furiously angry novel about U.S. hypocrisy and British complicity in the so-called war on terrorism. The Constant Gardener in particular was a brilliant novel made into an equally brilliant film.

Sadly, one can’t say the same about The Mission Song. This novel is also set in Africa, this time in the eastern Congo, the region decimated by years of war, most recently with Rwanda. Congo has a long and ugly history, with brutality piled on brutality by European and U.S. companies bent on looting the country of its rich resources. But le Carre doesn’t tell much history, and while his spy thrillers are usually notable for the richness and multi-dimensionality of their characters, this book is full of cardboard villains and African stereotypes, and a hero who behaves so naively and so foolishly that you lose patience with him before the book is halfway through.

Bruno Salvador is a translator, the illegitimate son of a Catholic priest in Kivu, who learned every African language there is to learn and now makes a good living interpreting surveillance tapes for British intelligence and working for corporate clients. He gets a sudden summons to interpret a meeting in person, a summit meeting of Congolese leaders. It’s explained to him as an effort to finally get things on track in the eastern part of the country, which has been burned and raped and looted for as long as Europeans have been on the continent.

The focal point of the conference is the Mwangaza, a populist leader who wants to unite the Eastern Congo, free it from the “fatcats” in the capital, Kinshasa, and return some of the profits from its rich resources to the people. He is going to try to convince three other leaders to go along: Haj, a sly businessman and a sharp dresser; Dieudonne, a leader of the southern highlands; and Franco, a Mai Mai leader whose guerillas have been attacking Dieudonne’s people for years. The entire conference center is bugged, and Bruno interprets in the meeting, pretending to understand only French and Swahili, and then runs down to the basement to listen to and interpret the side conversations during the breaks.

In the first session Dieudonne and Franco go at each other but finally come to terms and see the benefits. Haj is sarcastic and more resistant. In the break, Salvo hears Franco ask for and receive a bribe from the Mwangaza’s staff people in order to sign on, but Haj holds out in the next session even in front of everyone else’s agreement. In the next break, Salvo listens to an off-limits microphone (“archival only”) and hears Haj being tortured until he finally agrees and gives in. Then he hears other conversations indicating that the whole thing is a scam, and that the corporations behind this effort are going to take the entire “People’s Portion.” The Mwangaza is crooked.

Haj, who has suspected all along that Salvo understands everything that is being said, sings a song Salvo knows from his mission childhood after being tortured and securing his price for complying. At the end of the conference he gives Salvo his email address and Salvo steals the tapes of the torture sessions. (This is when I started to lose patience: all these elaborate security precautions and they never search the bag he’s carrying?)

He gets home, and along with his girlfriend, a Congolese nurse and admirer of the Mwangaza, tries to stop the coup. First he tells the team leader what happened and, of course, is told to shut up and mind his own business. Then he goes to the peer who signed off (via satellite phone) on the bribe to Haj. The peer, of course, denies any involvement and has him thrown out. Then he goes to a Congolese rebel leader associated with the Mwangaza who, of course, is outraged that Salvo would suggest the Mwangaza is crooked and accuses him of being a British intelligence officer trying to queer the whole deal and hurt Congo. Finally he goes to his supervisor who tries to get him to give back the tapes in exchange for forgiveness, but his girlfriend has swiped the two most important ones and emailed them to Haj.

Shortly thereafter the coup is foiled and the mercenaries arrested, but no one higher up is implicated, and both Bruno and his girlfriend are arrested and deported. I suppose the novel is supposed to be about the despoiling of an innocent, but Bruno is not an innocent, he’s an idiot.

The story of the Congo is vitally important to understanding the current state of Africa and the amount of blood on European and American hands, but this is probably not the book to look to. You might start with the seminal work, Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness, whose title is perpetually misunderstood as referring to Africa when in fact it refers to the evil hearts of the European traders and colonialists. Two recent nonfiction works are also required reading: Adam Hochschild’s King Leopold’s Ghost, about the Belgian colonial era (which stood out for its brutality so badly even in the benighted early 20th century that it sparked a worldwide reform movement), and In the Footsteps Of Mr. Kurtz, by Michaela Wrong, which covers the Mobutu era and whose indictment of U.S. policy and corporate crimes was so pointed that it was never published in this country, though it is still available in the U.K. She is credited in le Carre’s acknowledgements.

Sadly, though, aside from some interesting insights into the life of a diplomatic interpreter, there’s not much of interest to learn from this novel.

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