John le Carré
John le Carré; drawing by David Levine

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.

There is no reason, of course, why Salvo should think like George Smiley, or write like le Carré at his most astringent (and le Carré himself has loosened the stylistic reins in a variety of ways, if never so flamboyantly, since his early novels). There are actually broad suggestions of satire running through some scenes. When Salvo is being drafted into planning for the Congo coup, for instance, he asks his handler at MI-6, “Who are we saving the world from this time?” While posing this question, he is “careful to conceal my excitement beneath a breezy manner.” His handler speaks, without sarcasm, of “our beleaguered nation” (beleaguered by the Congo?), and Salvo, girding himself for the job, observes, “The life of a secret agent is nothing if not a journey into the unknown.” These lines would make Austin Powers blush. One must assume the humor is intentional, although I must say I didn’t laugh.

The same questions about intention hang over much of the action, particularly during the island conference, where the elaborateness of the dramaturgy is extreme. The entire estate, including the gazebo, is wired for eavesdropping, and the plot’s machinery creaks deafeningly as delegates move from bugged room to bugged room, followed by Salvo through headphones. There are far too many characters of roughly equal weight and vividness for any reader to keep them straight, and the story threatens to turn into door-slamming farce at each new stagey double-cross. With Salvo voguing and hyperventilating in the foreground, even an unlikely torture scene—the businessman from South Kivu, having expressed doubts about the coup’s prospects, is taken into a bathroom between negotiating sessions and, with the help of an electrified cattle prod, helped to understand his interests differently—feels more like musical theater, somehow, than a persuasive depiction of cruelty and suffering. There is, too, a large improbability—a truly far-fetched coincidence—connecting the coup plot with Hannah, a ravishing Congolese nurse in London with whom Salvo happens to have fallen in love only hours before he is called away to go interpret for the plotters.

Perhaps all this is deliberate. The old puppet-master is in the mood to show us the strings, to tease his readers about the mechanics of their suspension of disbelief. He’s tired of being authoritative, tired of taking us to masterfully scouted, richly textured, exotic locations. Maybe an extravagantly fallible—though hardly irredeemable or stupid—narrator increases the fun of the game for him. Le Carré is careful, one notes, in the acknowledgments that come with this book (yes, even le Carré is acknowledging his sources), to make gentle fun of Salvo’s fulsome speech habits. Message: they are not mine. That’s understood, though it doesn’t make Salvo any less annoying.

Despite appearances, Salvo and his creator have much in common. They both grew up without mothers and with colorful, improvident fathers, before being sent off from chaotic childhoods to acquire excellent educations.2 Both found their first callings in foreign languages—for le Carré, German—which in turn led them into the world of espionage. In le Carré’s case, his deep knowledge of Germany and things German might also be said to have helped him leave spying (and interpreting) behind, since it has suffused—and crucially strengthened—many of his novels, from his early books through Absolute Friends.

The relationship between le Carré’s fiction and the world as it actually is—real countries, current events, and the invisible events and institutions behind the news—has been, from the beginning, essential to his appeal. In the heyday of James Bond, the arrival of the Smiley books was sweet relief for readers of spy fiction looking for something more informative, something less inane.3 Smiley, the protagonist of five books and an important character in others, is a physically unprepossessing, doubt-ridden scholar, humanist, patriot, gifted bureaucratic infighter, and cuckold, a descendant of the complex characters in the espionage fiction of Somerset Maugham (Ashenden), Graham Greene (The Quiet American, Our Man in Havana), and the Joseph Conrad of The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes. More to the point, le Carré’s deep working familiarity with the clandestine practices of the cold war gave his stories an unparalleled authenticity. As that global twilight struggle progressed, so did le Carré’s fictional reporting on it. His stories always felt contemporary, and his forays away from Europe—to Southeast Asia in The Honourable Schoolboy (1977), to the Middle East in The Little Drummer Girl—always felt thoroughly researched for factual accuracy. The idea that the end of the cold war meant the end of spying (and thus, perhaps, the end of le Carré) was ahistorical, he argued. “The one thing you can bet is that spying is never over,” he told George Plimpton, in a 1996 public interview. “Spying is like the wiring in this building: it’s just a question of who takes it over and switches on the lights.”4

The contemporaneity of The Mission Song is typically acute. The London terror bombings of July 7, 2005, have already occurred, and the internationally supervised Congo elections of 2006 are on the near horizon. Indeed, the novel’s coup plot is meant to preempt those proceedings. (“Elections are a Western jerk-off,” as Maxie explains.) It doesn’t, which is just as well, since in the real world the elections went ahead with surprising success, validating the presidency of Joseph Kabila—Congo’s first legitimate national poll in forty years. Le Carré the public figure remains actively interested in Congo’s fate. In late December he co-wrote an Op-Ed piece for The Boston Globe (with Jason Stearns, of the International Crisis Group, who is prominently thanked in The Mission Song’s acknowledgments) urging the World Bank to investigate mining deals made by the Congolese transitional government in 2005—deals that, according to Stearns and le Carré, signed away, on terms that will not benefit the Congolese people, 75 percent of the country’s copper and cobalt reserves for the next thirty-five years.5

Refreshingly, one doesn’t get the sense that Salvo, if he could walk out of the Guantánamo-like detention in which he ends his fictional run and scratches down his tale, would write the same Op-Ed. He turns against the coup plot, recognizing that it is really just one more scam on the Congo’s minerals, and he does his damnedest to stop it, but not, thank God, by any windy moralizing. Instead, he speed-shifts into spy-thriller mode, utilizing his rudimentary tradecraft, as learned from MI-6 on “the One-Day Courses in Personal Security which all part-timers are obliged to attend.” His desperate effort to stop the plot occupies the final third of the novel and lifts it, finally, out of its scene-setting longueurs.

Salvo betrays his employers, of course, and must go underground, and then into a series of dangerous encounters as he looks for allies. (He dumps his never-sympathetic wife in passing.) Some of the resulting set pieces—when Salvo approaches a knighted benefactor of Africa, or his mentor at MI-6, or a Congolese dissident, or the always-scandal-hungry press—are completely convincing. His interview, for instance, with Lord Brinkley, the great friend of Africa, who is one of the coup plot’s leaders, and who, once he understands that Salvo wants his help in stopping it, icily denies his involvement, is, to my ear, pitch-perfect.

But the brilliance of these scenes points up the skimpiness of others. One of le Carré’s traditional fortes has been his depiction of class, particularly within MI-6, which he calls the Circus. Salvo, the half-Congolese, classless outsider, is a droll observer of British types (and they can be droll observers of him—a Cockney factotum on the island retreat sizes up the interpreter: “I would say we are a lot of people under one helmet, which is why we do the lingoes so nice”). But the level of easy authority and razor-sharp sketch rises markedly whenever the novel as a whole turns its attention from African politics, society, and characters to their British equivalents. Le Carré has done, as ever, his homework. His portrait of the ethnic tensions and recent history in the eastern Congo, as conveyed by the machinations of the coup negotiators, and through Salvo’s ruminations, is consistently plausible. And his touch with African conversations can be deft. This is an exchange—a bribe offer, overheard by Salvo—between a warlord named Franco and an adjutant of the Mwangaza named Dolphin:

Franco: …When the Mwangaza is Governor of South Kivu, he will be well advised to select my brother as his Chief of Police for all the region.

Dolphin: In the new democracy, all appointments will be the result of transparent consultation.

Franco: My brother will pay one hundred cows and fifty thousand dollars cash for a three-year appointment.

Dolphin: The offer will be considered democratically.

Still, Africa remains largely a blur, all bits and pieces, compared with the effortlessly imagined England where most of the action takes place and where every narrative detail seems to hit its target with force. Le Carré mentions, again in his acknowledgments, “my brief visit to the Eastern Congo,” and his vision of the region feels thin and patched together. (Conrad, for his part, spent six harrowing months in King Leopold’s Congo Free State in 1890—his health was never the same again—working much of the time on a steamship on the Congo River and gathering, though he did not know it, the material for Heart of Darkness.) Most of the information in The Mission Song arrives, inevitably, through the cracked glass of Salvo’s storytelling, which allows le Carré to play, at a certain remove, with his own ideas, his own mixed feelings, about both Britain and Africa. Salvo begins his tale as a besotted Anglophile, singing daft hymns to England and almost painfully delighted to be of use to his adopted nation’s secret service. Here is his initial description of one Mr. Anderson, his supervisor at MI-6:

He is a man complete, at once tall and bearish, the features as permanent as lava stone, every movement an event. Like Michael [one of Salvo’s childhood sponsors and priestly fondlers], he is a father to his men. He is somewhere in his late fifties, you assume, yet you have no sense that he was yesterday a dashing lad, or tomorrow will be on the shelf. He is rectitude personified, he is constabular, he is the oak of England. Just crossing a room he takes the moral justification for his actions with him. You can wait an eternity for his smile, but when it comes you’re closer to God.

In the end, Mr. Anderson, that oak of England, sputteringly, unsurprisingly, betrays his protégé. But le Carré, in the meantime, has taken the opportunity to ring many changes on the themes of loyalty, patriotism, and Britannia. Salvo’s African attachments and allegiances are relatively pallid and abstract, even though they, along with basic decency—and blooming love for a certain nurse—ostensibly motivate his fateful decision to expose the coup plot. There are, to be sure, references to the mild pro-African politics that he harbored before this current caper put them to the test, as well as one notable flash of insight and identification with the feelings of ordinary Congolese. The latter comes when, preparing to interpret a speech by the Mwangaza to his coconspirators, Salvo worries:

Will he scorn us and make us unhappy and guilty and self-accusing, which is what we Congolese, and we half-Congolese, are threatened with all the time?—Congo the laughing stock of Africa, raped, plundered, screwed up, bankrupt, corrupt, murderous, duped and derided, renowned by every country on the continent for its incompetence, corruption and anarchy.

This worry rings true.

More often, Salvo seems to approach his Africanness from outside. He claims not to believe in fetishes and magic, “although you can bet your bottom dollar it’s in there somewhere with my mother’s blood.” Similarly, he confesses to an obsession with elegant, colorful clothes, a passion “that no doubt springs direct from my Congolese mother’s genes.” Beyond these clichés, the idea of Africa comes to shimmer in the distance, a fever dream, his future. Once Hannah has been deported from Britain to Uganda, that country becomes the jailed Salvo’s promised land. We never get to see an inch of it, though.

This Issue

April 12, 2007