The Mission Song by John le Carre

It’s difficult not to associate John le Carre with British spy novels. With titles like The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, it’s no wonder. I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest that le Carres recent books surpass the genre and I don’t use the word “surpass” to disparage spy novels. I just think that his themes go beyond a simple tale about a spy.

His latest book The Mission Song (on sale 9/19) attempts to expose the dynamics of multinational corporations and their hold on governments and politics. He explores this theme through language—what’s spoken and unspoken and the subtexts with his narrator Bruno Salvador, a young translator born of an Irish priest and a Congolese woman. Married to a rising star in journalism, he works for a variety of companies including the British government. The novel revolves around one job he does for the government as an interpreter at a secret conference of African warlords attempting to wrest control of the Congo before the upcoming elections. As I was reading the book, I expected more action, but the conference takes up about two thirds of the book and most of the action is their conversations. Bruno listens in covertly on secret talks between the various warlords, even overhearing one man be tortured. Growing disillusioned with the government, Bruno decides to take some action, but I won’t give away what happens.

Le Carre uses Salvo’s occupation as an interpreter to show the power language has especially with regards to governments and corporations. Both can use language to persuade, to convince, to lie, to subjugate, and most often to control (I sound paranoid I know, but the current government has made me this way). Salvo never really belongs, in his life as the husband of the rising journalist, in his childhood in the Congo as the bastard son of a priest, even as a spy. And I think that’s to reinforce the idea that Bruno is a conduit. He’s interpreting statements—repeating what others say, not formulating his own. Suddenly he’s forced to make his own statement and it’s his background as a Congolese that informs it. It suggests that though we may have clear opinions about the way the world works, what would we do if we could actually have some impact on it? Perhaps I’m overthinking the book, but these are the themes that came to mind as I finished The Mission Song, obviously a thought-provoking read.

2 thoughts on “The Mission Song by John le Carre

  1. Lisa Hunter

    I’ve long thought that The Spy Who Came in from the Cold was one of the best post-war novels. It’s a great meditation on the nature of good and evil, and how those two abstractions aren’t as far apart as they seem.

    People roll their eyes when I recommend it. Sometimes they’ll tell me they only like “literary” fiction…


  2. Renaissance

    Le Carre at his best rises well above typical “spy” genre works; his world of moral ambiguities and his rich characterizations put him well within the grove of “literary fiction” authors if that matters. It may hurt him (for some readers) that his work can at times also be thrilling.


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