The Mission Song
by John le Carre
Our Man in Africa
A review by Ben Hughes
The end of the Cold War was a disaster for spy novelists. But while most of his peers were rolling up their maps of East Berlin and frantically researching terrorist cells, John le Carré shifted focus from the great games of international intrigue to the devastating effect they can have on people who don't even know they're playing.
In The Mission Song, his latest naïf is Salvo, a half-Irish, half-Congolese interpreter who moonlights for British Intelligence as a"sound-thief." Dispatched to spy on a secret African peace conference organized by shadowy business interests, he's jolted into a political awakening that shatters his mild, assimilated Britishness. It's a gripping, authentic storyline. Unfortunately, Salvo is neither. At the novel's start, his naivety is overwhelming, especially for a"mid-brown"-colored man surrounded by constant reminders of 9/11's New World Order. By its end he's possessed by a scalding, operatic outrage. A puppy love infatuation with another Congolese expat only deepens the impression that he's somehow stunted, his emotions limited to the outsized eruptions of a sixteen-year-old.
Even in his mid-seventies, Le Carré is still a master of cloak and dagger -- only someone who has witnessed such things first hand could write so convincingly about the dark art of eavesdropping on other people's conversations. And he is deeply attuned to the billions of ways in which Africa is well and truly fucked. What he lacks in The Mission Song, however, is a narrator who can tell his story with the gravitas it deserves. For a novel with so much to say -- including some trenchant things about the West's cynical manipulation of Africa -- it's a shame that much of it gets lost in translation.
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