John le Carré’s latest novel, The Mission Song, is a powerful book. It plays on a theme present in much of Le Carré’s work - brave individuals tilting at the windmills of huge, implacably evil organisations.
Le Carré is, among other things, a subtle and darkly humorous observer of character. Few authors can write a page-turning thriller in which the first third describes the central character showing up for work.
Bruno Salvador tells the story. The half-Irish, half-Congolese Salvo - as his friends, and soon to be enemies, call him - discovered that he had a talent for languages as a boy in eastern Congo. He has settled in London to build a reputation as an interpreter of African languages.
Salvo is optimistic about his life and future. He’s handsome, talented, smug, in demand and married to a journalist on the rise.
But Salvo is an outsider in Britain, and provides a glimpse into immigrant life. He thinks he knows more than he does about how the world works.
He is drawn into everyone’s manipulations - those of his wife, and his apparently friendly, spymaster boss.
He meets and falls in love with Hannah, a Congolese nurse who dreams of returning to a peaceful, united Congo - and she awakens in Salvo an idealistic view of his homeland.
A shadowy British agency requisitions him to interpret at a top secret conference, held on an island somewhere in the North Sea, to discuss the Congo.
Le Carré says about the country, “The Congo has been Africa’s greatest loser, and I am drawn to losers, colonised and exploited by Arabs, who jointly with tribal chiefs and the Portuguese got the slave trade going; horribly colonised by Belgium’s Leopold, and now permanently the battlefield for other people’s wars; cursed with vast mineral deposits and a dismal infrastructure... and a sitting target for all the world’s carpetbaggers.”
The supposed reason for the conference is that a mysterious intelligence and business backed syndicate is attempting to broker a deal giving power to a unifying leader.
The goals of this syndicate involve pre-empting forthcoming elections in Congo, so that it can “give the people a fair slice of the cake for once, and let peace break out”.
At first Salvo is naive and eager, delighted to do his part - but then he overhears something he wasn’t meant to hear. The real agenda, the interpreter realises, will hardly serve the Congolese people. It’s the fat cats and the shadowy Brits, who will profit from a coup.
Back in England, the still idealistic Salvo enlists Hannah in a desperate race to find someone who will help. They go looking for help in all the wrong places.
References to the political climate litter the novel. Salvo worries in a restaurant about an “innocent brown bystander” being beaten up by local hooligans and then “arrested under the anti-terror laws into the bargain”. References to Iraq and a refugee detention centre facility “surrounded by enough barbed wire to keep out the entire Nazi army”, give a context to Salvo’s developing uncertainties.
Le Carré provides a full transcript of a single torture scene, spanning several pages. The details are important, Salvo explains, because “we hear so much about torture these days” and “argue about whether such practices as hooding, sound-deprivation and water-boarding amount to it”.
Since the end of the Cold War, Le Carré has been asking “Who will save us from capitalism?” The answers are left ambiguous but the need to do it is certain.
He describes his novel, saying, “It’s a romantic satire, written with both feet firmly off the ground! It’s about Tony Blair’s England, and good old-fashioned colonial exploitation, and political hypocrisy and shameless public lies, and other scores I had to settle.
“It’s about the quest for identity in our multi-ethnic society, and New Labour’s assault on our civil liberties, and a bunch of other similarly lofty themes.”
It is all those things and it’s a fine read.
The Mission Song by John Le Carré is available from Bookmarks. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com