It must be odd to have a whole category of inscrutable world events assigned exclusively to your authorship. When the former Russian spy Alexander Litvinenko died in London recently, poisoned by a rare radioactive substance that then turned up in planes, hotels, offices, and an apartment in Germany, as well as in a number of people who had been in contact with Litvinenko—who, on his deathbed, accused Vladimir Putin of his murder—the international press, in almost perfect unison, pronounced the case “straight out of le Carré.” The Sunday Times even quoted “a source close to the [police] investigation” saying, “This is a very complex John le Carré– style situation.” One American columnist went with “John le Carré on acid.” Le Carré himself, meanwhile, told Reuters he had no comment.
The novelist has been onto matters other than the KGB, of course, for many years. Having created, with his early novels, a fictional universe that caught the density and ambiguities of cold war espionage so memorably, he will likely not escape, in his lifetime, seeing his name used globally as journalistic shorthand for certain sorts of intrigue and skulduggery. But his novels set in the Middle East (The Little Drummer Girl, 1983) and Central America (The Tailor of Panama, 1996) and East Africa (The Constant Gardener, 2001) have each, in their separate ways, been as ambitious—as indelible, even—as his multivolume cold war saga. Admittedly, none of these tales has lacked for skulduggery either. In recent years le Carré the public figure has become more politically outspoken, and his opinions can frequently be found, expressed more or less directly, in his fiction—views on the depredations of big drug companies in The Constant Gardener, or on the folly of the invasion of Iraq in Absolute Friends (2004).
The Mission Song, le Carré’s twentieth novel, is about a coup plot in the eastern Congo. It is not a book of political advocacy, though it does dramatize the comprehensive disillusionment of its narrator, a freelance interpreter named Bruno Salvador, with the British foreign policy establishment. Salvo, as he is known, is an aggressively fanciful concoction. His father was a French-Irish vagabond and Catholic missionary in Africa whose response to extensive torture at the hands of anticolonialist Congolese brigands was to celebrate his survival by breaking his vow of chastity at every opportunity, thus begetting Salvo with a village headman’s daughter who, shortly after her half-caste son’s birth, was murdered, along with her entire family, “by an aberrant tribe.”
Salvo grew up rough—underfoot and barely tolerated in the servants’ quarters of a mission in the eastern Congo. He had inherited, however, a gift for languages (“my mynah-bird ear and jackdaw memory”) from his father, who died when he was ten, and the boy caught the attention, largely sexual, of the friars. Packed off to boarding school in England, he was in effect adopted by another pedophilic divine, who directed his formal studies toward high academic achievement in a startling number of languages, both African and European. That priest also died, leaving Salvo to lose his heterosexual virginity, at age twenty-three, to an ambitious English tabloid journalist from a rich family in Surrey. Eager to shock her parents, she agrees to marry Salvo one week after they meet, and our story begins five years into their shaky, childless marriage, with Salvo living the twenty-first-century bourgeois life in Battersea and working as a top-flight interpreter for a range of organizations, not least the British secret service.
An interpreter, like a spy, makes a good protagonist. He is injected into the middle of other people’s business. He’s indispensable, yet strives to be invisible. He has a job to do, yet can’t help hearing and seeing things not meant for his consumption. For a le Carré hero, destined by nature for a crise de conscience over institutional loyalties, interpreting is, in short, an ideal occupation. It also provides grist for reflections on language that suit le Carré’s particular cosmopolitanism, as when Salvo expounds on “the psychology of your multilinguist”:
People who put on another European language, it is frequently observed, put on another personality with it. An Englishman breaking into German speaks more loudly. His mouth changes shape, his vocal cords open up, he abandons self-irony in favour of dominance. An Englishwoman dropping into French will soften herself and puff out her lips for pertness, while her male counterpart will veer towards the pompous. I expect I do the same. But your African languages do not impart these fine distinctions. They’re functional and they’re robust, even when the language of choice is colonial French. They’re peasant languages made for straight talk and good shouting in argument, which Congolese people do a lot of. Subtleties and evasion are achieved less by verbal gymnastics than by a change of topic or, if you want to play safe, a proverb. Sometimes I’ll be aware, as I hop from one language to another, that I have shifted my voice to the back of my throat to achieve the extra breath and husky tone required. Or I have a feeling, for instance when I am speaking Kinyarwanda, that I’m juggling a hot stone between my teeth. But the larger truth is, from the moment I settle into my chair, I become what I render.
It is as an interpreter that Salvo is drafted, by his sometime employers at British intelligence, into the center of the eastern Congo coup plot. But his confidently neutral, technocrat’s self-description begins to wobble when his understanding of the plans being fomented deepens. “I’m an interpreter,” he insists. “They talk, I render. I don’t stop rendering people when they say wrong things. I don’t censor, edit, revise or invent, not the way certain of my colleagues do. I give it straight.”
What he is at first given to understand is that an innovative coalition of international capital and progressive local politicians is going to seize power in a troubled, resource-rich region known as the Kivus, and then put its natural wealth at the service of local development and, ultimately, democracy. “It’s delivering democracy at the end of a gun barrel to the Eastern Congo,” explains one of the plotters, a British veteran of many small wars known as Maxie. Not that the plan is any of Salvo’s business. (Some of the conspirators call him simply “the languages.”) Maxie’s summary of Congolese history is, in any case, unexceptionable. “Congo’s been bleeding to death for five centuries,” he says.
Fucked by the Arab slavers, fucked by their fellow Africans, fucked by 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 fucked by the oil companies. Time they had a break, and we’re the boys to give it to ‘em.
The money for the plot is coming from a shadowy entity known only as the Syndicate, and the scheme actually sounds plausible to Salvo for roughly half the novel. By the time he learns that specific plans include painting the helicopters of the invaders white and putting United Nations markings on them—even as their nose cones are being filled with machine guns capable of firing four thousand rounds a minute—he is having, finally, second thoughts. And betrayal, which is the multitentacled leitmotiv of all of le Carré’s fiction, has begun to slither restlessly through the action.
If one were patrolling the globe in search of great problems to address, the Democratic Republic of the Congo—known for a period (1971–1997) as Zaire, and sometimes as Congo-Kinshasa—would be a logical first stop. Maxie’s pungent summary of the country’s history doesn’t even mention the fact that between 1998 and 2003, it was the battlefield for what is sometimes called “Africa’s World War One,” a conflict that pulled in many neighboring armies and left an estimated four million dead. In a nation nearly the size of Western Europe, after an excruciating colonial period under the Belgians, the decline, since independence in 1960, of the social and economic infrastructure—for health, education, transportation, commerce—has taken place on a scale that almost defies comprehension. Certainly statistics cannot express it. A multitude of armed groups, both Congolese and foreign, answerable to no law, prey on the civilian population and on one another.
Given this vast canvas, le Carré wisely limits himself, in The Mission Song, to one small area in the Congo, the Kivus, and to only a few contending groups. North and South Kivu have been, to be sure, at the heart of some of the worst violence in the country. The two provinces sit on the western shores of Lake Kivu, one of the most beautiful of the African Great Lakes, and both border Rwanda. Civil wars in Burundi, Rwanda, and Uganda have all spilled into the Kivus, and the 1994 Rwandan genocide and its aftermath flooded the region with refugees, génocidaires, and their pursuers. The catastrophic war in the Congo that started in 1998 started in the Kivus. Many international corporations and governments, and all of the Congo’s eastern neighbors, remain deeply interested in the mineral wealth and tangled politics of the Kivus. Rwanda’s influence is particularly strong in the vacuum created by a hapless Congolese government, whose capital, Kinshasa, is, after all, a thousand miles of roadless bush away. Still, the complexities of a bid to seize power in the two Kivu provinces are not, at least in theory, infinite.
Le Carré further limits the potentially dizzying complications by keeping the action in Europe. That’s right, we never go to Africa in this novel about Africa. The story moves from England to an unidentified island in the North Sea and then back to England, with Africa appearing only briefly in memories, news flashes, anecdotes, a letter. The coup plot is hashed out on the island, at a country house turned clandestine conference center, between representatives of the Syndicate, British intelligence, and several factions from the eastern Congo, including a businessman, two warlords, and an elderly, antitribalist politician known as “the Mwangaza” (Swahili for light, or enlightenment). We spend 136 pages—more than a third of the novel—at the island conference center, negotiating the plan. To say that staying in Europe, mostly talking, attenuates the inherent drama of this African war story would be too diplomatic. It very nearly starves it. The liveliest discussion at a conference center is still a discussion at a conference center.
Another problem, in its way more corrosive, is Salvo’s narration. For all his protestations of cool professionalism, he is an impetuous, sometimes frenzied character, elaborately self-involved, and given to flights of memory, fantasy, and free association that leave his story littered with red herrings, lame jokes, alternating bouts of preening and self-castigation, and recurring episodes of poor judgment. His egregious naiveté lasts far too long. For le Carré, such a character is a brave leap into the literary unknown—to begin with, writing a novel entirely in the first person, and then, relying on a narrator so unreliable. At one point, Salvo confides, “My personal state of mind was alternating between post-coital, skittish, out of it, and totally hyper.” Indeed. Salvo’s command of English syntax is imperfect, his sense of irony often deficient. In fact, the wild indiscipline of his voice, with its boyish, orotund exclamations and occasional slovenliness, could scarcely present a starker contrast to the brisk, unadorned, authoritative prose that helped bring le Carré’s work to the world’s attention in the first place. Asked by an interviewer after the extraordinary success of The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, which appeared in 1963, how he had come by his stripped-down style, le Carré cited his years in the Foreign Office, where all field reports were severely edited, he recalled, purged of every unnecessary syllable.1 Salvo has no such internal copy editor in The Mission Song.
Leigh Crutchley, "The Fictional World of Espionage," The Listener, Vol. 75 (April 14, 1966), pp. 548–549, reprinted in Conversations with John le Carré, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (University Press of Mississippi, 2004).↩
Leigh Crutchley, “The Fictional World of Espionage,” The Listener, Vol. 75 (April 14, 1966), pp. 548–549, reprinted in Conversations with John le Carré, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman (University Press of Mississippi, 2004).↩