The Mission Song by John le Carré

Don't believe what they tell you
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The Independent Culture

Most of us believe most of what we are told most of the time; that's normal. And most of the time, we are right to do so. But not in John le Carré's world. There, to be normal is to be hopelessly naive, for everything you are told could be, and probably is, a lie.

Bruno Salvo, the main character and narrator of The Mission Song is naive in just this sense: he trusts people. Salvo's father was an Irish missionary, his mother the daughter of a Congolese village headman, both now dead. Salvo lives in London and earns his living as a top interpreter (he always insists on the "top") thanks to his extraordinary command of languages. As well as English, French and Swahili, he is fluent in the African languages of Acholi, Lingala, Bembe, Shi and Kinyarwanda.

He is employed as a part-time assistant by the British Secret Service, his usual task being eavesdropping in an underground bunker nicknamed the Chat Room. Until he is sent on a special mission: to act as interpreter at a secret meeting between a group of industrialists and a trio of African warlords. The aim is to stage a coup ahead of the elections. Salvo is told that the whole enterprise is motivated only by the philanthropic desire to bring peace and stability to a battered, abused, war-torn country. Being Salvo, he believes it.

The novel is written in a dense, chunky, masculine style, rich in concrete nouns: a typical page throws up Africa, mouths, groins, eyes, hands, gun, panga, penis, beer and goldmine. Another le Carré feature is the love of code-words: Salvo's more obscure languages, which he is told to conceal his knowledge of, are dubbed "below the waterline", and thereafter referred to as such. One reads slowly to begin with and then at an accelerating pace, as the truth in its full scariness dawns on Salvo. A torture scene where we do not see any of the action, but hear it through Salvo's headphones, is a tour-de-force.

Salvo is a fascinating and sympathetic character. He is torn between two races: his own mixed parentage, his white wife and his Congolese lover Hannah, his desire both to be a patriotic British citizen and to save the Congo. The reader is made genuinely anxious by his habit of appealing for help to those very people from whom he is most at risk.

Mission Song is clearly meticulously researched , and the tricks and tactics of being a top interpreter are convincingly rendered. You're left with the uncomfortable feeling that perhaps politicians, journalists, civil servants and businessmen really are the lying, amoral bastards portrayed here. Perhaps it isn't only in John le Carré's world, but in the real world too, that we're unwise to believe what we're told.

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