The Mission Song
A Book by John le Carré
First Appeared in The Music Box, December 2006, Volume 13, #12
Written by John Metzger
John le Carré’s latest novel The Mission Song is a strange book in that it is, at times, a real chore to wade through its heavily detailed complexities, but as it progresses, it becomes equally difficult to set aside. The story is told from the perspective of interpreter Bruno Salvador, a.k.a. Salvo, whose father was an Irish Catholic missionary and whose mother, whom he never knew, was a native of Congo. Its central conflicts are derived from Salvo’s personal infidelities and his estrangement from his birthplace as well as from how these relate to the top-secret mission upon which he embarks. Hired by a mysterious syndicate through his affiliation with the British Intelligence agency, Salvo becomes torn between his duty to his employers and his reawakened allegiance to the country of his lineage after learning that a coalition of Western governments is planning to incite a civil war so that it can exploit the poverty-stricken country of Congo for its natural resources. In this case, it’s primarily to mine columbite-tantalite (or coltan), an important component for manufacturing consumer electronics and mobile phones. The comparisons that are drawn, however, to the real-life instabilities not only in Congo but also in Iraq — and countless other locales around the globe, for that matter — by the concept of bringing "democracy at the end of a gun barrel" are, at best, thinly veiled.
Herein lies the problem: Le Carré seems so hellbent on portraying the world in black-and-white terms that even those who might be sympathetic to his cause likely will find it difficult to sit through what initially amounts to a heavy-handed lecture on how the world operates. In his defense, the historical context is a crucial component of his tale, and he wisely explains that the blame for Africa’s plight isn’t entirely a result of Western civilization’s personal interests. Yet, in rendering his ideology in such an unusually dry fashion and in making Salvo so incomprehensibly unaware of what is taking shape, le Carré prevents both followers of and newcomers to his work from connecting with his characters. It’s only when the pace quickens during The Mission Song’s final act — which begins after Salvo accidentally eavesdrops on the torture of an entrepreneur/delegate known as Haj; realizes the corruption to which he has contributed; and sets out, rather naively, to correct his mistakes — that the novel becomes wholly captivating. For a novel that plunges so far into the darkness of the human heart, however, it shouldn’t have to transform itself into a thriller in order to find its emotional base. Then again, perhaps the detached air that permeates The Mission Song is a reflection of Western society’s own disconnection from the happenings in the world at large.
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1 Star: Dud
2 Stars: Enjoyable
3 Stars: Respectable
4 Stars: Excellent
5 Stars: Classic
Copyright © 2006 The Music Box