Thursday, January 31, 2008

The Mission Song by John le Carré

In The Mission Song John le Carré re-visits the world of espionage that we associate with his writing. He is a master of the clandestine, the deniable, the re-definable. Bruno Salvador is a freelance linguist. His parentage is complex, his origins confused, but his skills beyond question. By virtue of an upbringing that had many influences, he develops the ability to absorb languages. Having lived in francophone Africa and then England, he is fluent in both English and French plus an encyclopaedia of central African languages. His unique gifts, considerable skills and highly idiosyncratic methods qualify him for occasional assignments as an interpreter. He is trusted. He is also, he discovers, pretty cheap, and already has considerable experience of working for those aspects of government and officialdom which sometimes transgress legality. He is also, therefore, vulnerable. So when a new assignment – so urgent that he has to skip his wife’s party – drags him to a secret destination, he initially takes everything very much in his stride.

But Bruno is much more than a linguist, certainly much more than a translator and, as a result of the application of conscience, considerably more than the interpreter his employers have hired. His perception of language is so acute that it provides him with an extra sense, a means of interpreting the world, no less, not just a method of eliciting meaning. But he also has the intellectual skills to identify consequences, to interpret motives. And it is here where he begs to differ with his paymasters.

The Mission Song is the kind of book where revelation of the plot, beyond this mere starting point, would undermine the experience of reading it. Suffice it to say that Bruno’s task is both what is seems to be and also not what it seems. Bruno’s ambivalence in relation to its aims prompts him to go beyond the call of duty. And, in doing so, he learns more about his near-anonymous employers. But, of course, they learn more about him, a reality that eventually has fairly dire consequences.

The Mission Song is also a love story, or two, one on the way in and one on the way out. It’s also about privilege and power, plus their use, misuse and abuse. In many ways it inhabits similar territory to John le Carré’s Absolute Friends, but is singularly more successful, especially in the credibility of the eventual denouement.

Fans of John le Carré will need no convincing. For those who have found his other work less than satisfying, The Mission Song shows the author at his best, presenting a complex, highly credible plot in a skillful, illuminating, informative and yet entertaining way. Its eventual message about the abuse of power is subtly threaded into the very substance of the plot and makes its point with strength and relevance. We know a little more about the world by the end.

View the book on amazon
The Mission Song

No comments: