Whenever I read David Cornwell – better known by his pen name of John le Carré – I am left open-mouthed with awe at his storytelling prowess. He is the kind of writer I aspire to be; a lofty and unattainable benchmark for a newbie novelist!
The undisputed master of espionage and geopolitical thrillers, perhaps more psychological than action oriented; le Carré is gifted with a rapier sharp intellect, his characterisations are thorough and utterly believable, his plots are clever and complex but at the same time could be lifted from real life, and his use of vocabulary and descriptive powers are unmatched, in my humble opinion.
He can weave all of this together seamlessly with the knock-out punch of over-arching relevant social themes that leave you reeling with moral dilemmas and unease afterwards.
That is exactly what The Mission Song did to me. My children occasionally interrupted me as my nose was buried within its compelling pages for interminable periods over the weekend.
I became engrossed in the life of Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo, a top interpreter in the languages of Africa and the Eastern Congo.
I haven’t read Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but I feel it’s highly likely that le Carré drew inspiration from his tale of Belgian exploitation of the Congo.
Conrad’s quote precedes chapter one::
“The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. “ – Marlow
King Leopold is mentioned only once in The Mission Song, but it does highlight the ongoing plight of the Eastern Congo: corruption, tribal rivalries, their suspicion and hatred of Rwandans, outside interference from greedy developed nations seeking to take advantage of the local strife so they can plunder its considerable natural resources under the veiled auspices of schools, hospitals and bounty for all.
The opening few pages on audio book of The Mission Song, read by David Oyelowo:
I’ll try not to give away too many spoilers in this review, more a taste of the book’s many virtues. The beginning was a slow burn for me, but after the first couple of chapters I was completely hooked.
I empathised with and was beguiled by Salvo’s essentially ambitious but innocent nature. In the early pages he tells of his rather sad and unorthodox childhood; the son of a Northern Irish missionary and a beautiful Congolese woman, born out of wedlock and in sin, fitting in nowhere, he is brought up in various mission schools and becomes fluent in Swahili, French, Shi, Bembe, Kinyarwanda and of course his adopted nation’s tongue: English.
After the death of his father Salvo is duly shipped to Britain courtesy of the Holy See, and comes under the wing of Brother Michael at The Sanctuary, a boarding school for Catholic orphans. They grow close, and later Salvo is supported financially and lives with their wealthy Aunt Imelda in Somerset.
Salvo is impressionable, idealistic, diligent and naïve. His physical attributes are of a confident, tall, muscular, light brown skinned man eager to impress his clients, and so from humble beginnings he has found his niche as a top interpreter.
He is called a zebra later in the novel, a derogatory reference to his mixed race parentage. However, Salvo adopts the sobriquet and uses it in his own motivational way as he pits himself secretly against some Congolese delegates, and later, after his moral paradigm shift, his no-name, ruthless employers.
Salvo has married a smart, upper class journalist named Penelope, against the wishes of her authoritarian father. Their marriage is doomed from the start.
Lately he has been doing some under the radar translation work for Her Majesty’s Government in Mr Anderson’s Chat Room. His knowledge of African languages makes him indispensable.
Salvo doesn’t know it yet but his life is about to get a whole lot more exciting and complicated!
The night before he becomes a part-time spy, Salvo meets Hannah, a young Congolese nurse, who needs him to translate her advice to a dying African patient. They fall in love at first sight. Hannah has a young son, Noah, living back in Uganda with her aunt so that Hannah can continue to further her nursing experience and send back money.
They are perfect for each other, and in his guilty heart Salvo knows that his bourgeois life with Penelope is over. Having consummated his love and passion with Hannah, Salvo is still infused with a post coital afterglow when he is summoned to meet with his Chat Room boss, Mr Anderson, about a ‘special’ mission that requires a change of identity and complete deniability.
Given new, but somewhat shabby clothes in comparison to his usual attire, his identity is changed to Brian Sinclair. He signs the Official Secrets Act. His task: to be a top interpreter for a no-name syndicate between tribal warlords and a businessman of the Eastern Congo.
Before they leave, Bruno is taken to a large London townhouse where he meets his immediate boss, ex-special forces tough man, Maxie, who reminds him of his long-dead maths teacher from The Sanctuary. Prominent politicians and business leaders are coming and going, including a hero of his, Lord Brinkley.
Soon our boy is being whisked by helicopter from London to Luton airport where he boards a private charter with Maxie and his spy cohorts: Spider, Anton and Benny, various security detail Salvo calls ‘anoraks’ and the syndicate’s contract writer, a shady French Lawyer, Jasper Albin.
Salvo’s phone has been commandeered temporarily by British Intelligence, so he cannot call Hannah to tell her he will be away for the weekend, or his wife to apologise for leaving her party early, and also their faltering marriage.
It is during the flight to a mysterious island in the North Sea on this heightened tide of emotions that he is briefed with what he needs to know by the laconic and foul-mouthed Maxie, whom he (and everyone else on the mission), refers to as Skipper.
Salvo learns that the top secret conference has been arranged by an accomplished servant of the Crown, the silvery haired and persuasive Philip, and that in his vital role as their interpreter, Brian Sinclair, he is not to divulge that he speaks the lesser known Shi and Kinyarwanda.
This information seems incidental at first, but as the story progresses the significance of Maxie’s explicit instructions become fundamental to the plot:
“Suppose we put it out that you speak English, French and Swahili and call it a day? That’s more than enough for anybody. And we keep your little ones to ourselves. How would that grab you? Different kind of challenge for you. New.”
Salvo is less than impressed that ‘above the waterline’ he only speaks English, French and Swahili, and ‘below the waterline’ the languages that he is most proud of such as Shi, Bembe and Kinyarwanda must be kept under wraps, unless he is specifically asked to use them. He nonetheless undertakes his ‘above the waterline’ rendering of Philip, the Mwangaza and Maxie with alacrity.
The Mwangaza is a beloved spiritual leader of the Congo’s ‘middle path’, accompanied by his henchman Felix Tabizi, (aka Tabby), a feared former warrior, and his acolyte the Dolphin.
The three delegates consist of a gnarled general of the Mai Mai and ‘former Mobotu thug’ Franco, and his natural enemy, the aid’s ridden warlord Dieudonné of the despised and persecuted Banyamulenge tribe, and thorn in the British side is the arrogant and slick Haj, son of Luc, a long-time friend of the Mwangaza based in Goma, who has sent Haj as his proxy.
In Salvo’s words: “Haj, the egregious Sorbonne-educated, uncrowned merchant prince of Bukavu: but with such disdain, such foppery, and such determined distance from his fellows, that I was tempted to wonder whether he was having second thoughts about standing in for his father.”
Le Carré’s genius is that I was sucked in with Salvo in his wanting to do a good job of interpreting and for their mission to be a success. In the recesses of the conference, rather than socialise and solicit with the delegates, Salvo has been instructed to go into the basement where Spider has put together a comprehensive listening station that links in to all the rooms in the house and the outdoor bugs scattered at key points throughout the grounds.
The conference organiser and boss, Philip is banking on loose tongues to wag while their unpredictable guests are out of earshot of their hosts…
The illicit listening is where Salvo hears himself being called ‘a pretty zebra’ by a recalcitrant Haj, who is doing his best to talk Franco and Dieudonné out of getting involved with the syndicate. They are speaking (and the inference is deliberately) in Kinyarwanda, not knowing their interpreter is eavesdropping on one of his ‘below the line’ languages.
As the syndicate’s chief ‘sound thief’, Salvo translates their conversations and reports back to the well-spoken Sam via the radio, who frequently starts her sentences with, “Brian dear…”
It is apparent to Salvo (and therefore to the reader), that Skipper wholeheartedly believes their secret conference will make them the saviours of the Eastern Congo. In his less than salubrious language Maxie explains:
“Congo’s been bleeding to death for five centuries,” he went on distractedly. “F***** by the Arab slavers, fellow Africans, the United Nations, the CIA, the Christians, the Belgians, the French, the Brits, the Rwandans, the diamond companies, the gold companies, the mineral companies, half the world’s carpetbaggers, their own government in Kinshasa, and any minute now they’re going to be f***** by the oil companies.“
As the conference unfolds, it becomes obvious that the well-meaning secret syndicate will support the three leaders to publicly support each other and the Mwangaza in a pre-arranged coup, although it’s portrayed more as a temporary disturbance by Maxie to downplay any violence, prior to the elections in Kinshasa.
Maxie takes great pains to explain that the wealth of the mines and minerals will be distributed to the well deserving people, after the syndicate and its partners take their cut.
The Congo gets its popular, altruistic leader, a newly formed peace united under the Mwangaza, and the delegates and the syndicate get rich. It’s a win-win according to Skipper.
Haj is the subversive element of their plan, and through Salvo’s clandestine listening in of Tabby torturing Haj with the assistance of Anton and Benny, (something his employers did not want him to know about), Salvo himself, now disillusioned and wary of the coming war that Maxie and the syndicate plan to unleash, and that Haj has protested about, secretly becomes the unlikely linchpin of the entire operation.
From one of the Mission Song’s most shocking scenes the book’s moving title then becomes clear.
Le Carré’s escalation and tension crescendos magnificently, so much so that you feel like you are a rookie spy, in the thick of it with Salvo, torn between his loyalty to Queen and country, his missionary’s conscience and his homeland, as well as his love for Hannah who he knows also adores the Eastern Congo and the Mwangaza. Their beleaguered nation, once again at the mercy of ruthless state-sponsored greed…
The twist at the end is heartbreaking and breathtaking. It’s so utterly brilliant I had a swell of emotion! I was screaming in my mind at Salvo not to be so naïve. He is a zebra surrounded by lions.
This is realistic spy fiction which makes it all the more impactful in my humble opinion. I was left with very unpatriotic thoughts and disquiet, I felt quite sullied actually. I don’t read le Carré for a light-hearted romp, because that’s not his style – it’s gritty, hard hitting, lyrical (you wouldn’t believe the man’s vocabulary), cynical and visceral.
“John Le Carré turns espionage into existentialism. His canvas is betrayal — of the realm and of the heart. His greatness comes from the personal nature of that exploration.” ~ David Farr
Endings are a tricky thing to master: to achieve a balance whereby the reader is both surprised and satisfied with an outcome that is unforeseen and yet can be the only logical conclusion to the story. Yet again The Mission Song left me breathless.
My thanks to John le Carré for inspiring me to once again get stuck in to writing my psychological thriller that has been rattling around my head for far too long.
I found this a fascinating and entertaining debate between author Anthony Horowitz and screenwriter David Farr – Ian Fleming vs John le Carré:
If you want an intelligent summer read full of authentic details in the world of espionage, covert national malfeasance, interpreting, dialogue to die for and edge-of-your-seat, emotional storytelling, The Mission Song won’t let you down!
For a deeper insight into the man and his writing this is a great interview (on le Carré’s part at least) filmed with BBC Radio 3:
For fans you may wish to know that the author will be speaking at the Royal Festival Hall in London on 7th September discussing his career and new novel, A Legacy of Spies, reprising his best loved character: George Smiley. It has been billed by The Guardian as the literary event of the year.
The kids will only just be back at school, but I must be there!!