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 …