Another John le Carre hero goes up against power and pays the price

Review Novel

September 24, 2006|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,[SPECIAL TO THE SUN]

The Mission Song

By John le Carre

Little, Brown / 344 pages / $26.99

Ever since Alec Leamas fell dead at the base of the Berlin Wall in the 1963 classic The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, John le Carre has been throwing one hero after another into the breach against the world's most ruthless monoliths of power, secrecy and greed.

Leamas' dying vision of "a small car smashed between great lorries" aptly sums up the fate of most of them. With the notable exception of spymaster George Smiley, who always managed to escape with his life and his hollow victories by operating within the system, le Carre's leading men and women have routinely been bent, folded, spindled and mutilated - sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally - in their fruitless pursuit of a larger justice.

Le Carre's latest sacrificial lamb is Bruno Salvador, aka Salvo, the star as well as the narrator of his 20th novel, The Mission Song. Salvo may be the author's most naive creation to date, but he is also one of the most fascinating and engaging.

Salvo, raised as a de facto orphan in a mission settlement in the green highlands of the eastern Congo, informs us that he is "the natural son of a bog Irish Roman Catholic missionary and a Congolese village woman whose name has vanished forever in the ravages of war and time."

"Contrary to what anybody may tell you," he also says, "I am a citizen in good standing of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and by profession a top interpreter of Swahili and the lesser-known but widely spoken languages of the Eastern Congo."

We soon learn other crucial facts.

Salvo's linguistic skills have caught the attention of Britain's secret services, which have employed him at a clandestine listening post.

He is also the oft-cuckolded husband of a star tabloid reporter named Penelope, and, having endured quite enough of that in a good-humored simmer, he has recently begun a passionate affair with Hannah, a nurse from the eastern Congo who shares Salvo's idealistic love and aggrieved exasperation for their troubled but beautiful homeland.

So, you might say that Salvo is primed for zealous mischief when he is hastily recruited for an off-the-books job one weekend. The event's organizers, a vague consortium of commercial interests, have set up an unofficial peace conference among three Congolese rivals, which is to take place on a remote North Sea island.

The arrangement should probably set off alarm bells for Salvo, especially when it becomes clear the sponsors are planning a privately financed coup which will install a hand-picked newcomer to clean up the mess.

Salvo should also be skeptical of his employers' purported altruism when they ask him to also interpret the participants' private conversations via microphones that have been hidden all over the tiny island.

Yet Salvo buys into it, partly because he has been led to believe it will work for the benefit of all, and partly because the designated new leader is a Mandela-type sage whom Hannah has already been raving about.

So Salvo gets with the program, at least for a while.

But because he has always been a little too curious for his own good, Salvo begins listening in on certain unauthorized microphones even when his services haven't been requested. And when he finds that things aren't at all as advertised, he sets in motion a scheme to set everything right.

The writing in the tense scenes on the island is all that one has come to expect from le Carre: impeccable tradecraft, suitably unctuous masterminds, dialogue that always rings true, and a cast in which even the most incidental characters are well and fully drawn with a few deft brush- strokes. The atmosphere of intrigue builds nicely and convincingly, and soon enough it is interlaced with menace.

But Salvo's naivet? strains credulity when he begins seeking his own idealistic solution through official channels. One would expect much more awareness from a fellow sharp enough to pick out even the subtlest meanings from conversations proceeding in several languages at once.

Nonetheless, he plunges blindly ahead. And even though his performance is entertaining - slightly sub-par le Carre still beats 95 percent of everything else in the field - we know from very early in Salvo's ride that, once again, another small car is about to be smashed between great lorries.

Dan Fesperman is a reporter for The Sun now on a leave of absence. He the author of several novels, including, most recently, "The Prisoner of Guantanamo."

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