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Mission Song    by John Le Carré order for
Mission Song
by John Le Carré
Order:  USA  Can
Little, Brown & Co., 2006 (2006)
Hardcover, CD

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Bruno Salvador, the hero of John Le Carré's Mission Song reminded me - in his innocence and political naivete - of Voltaire's Candide. Salvo grew up in Africa, an embarrassment to the authorities, since he was the child of a Catholic missionary and a village headman's daughter in the Congo. His father kept this 'accidental son' close till he died when Salvo was ten. The 'secret child' was then raised in a mission school, registered as a foundling adopted by the Holy See and sent to boarding school in England. There, Brother Michael took him under his wing, and saw to an education that developed his linguistic talents.

As the story opens, Salvo is very much in demand as a 'top interpreter of Swahili and the lesser-known but widely spoken languages of the Eastern Congo'. He's married to upper-class Penelope, 'a rising star in the firmament of a mass-market British tabloid capable of swaying millions.' And, unbeknownst to the wife whose entire attention is on her own career, Salvo does odd interpreting jobs for Mr. Anderson of the Ministry of Defence. When the latter calls Salvo out of a black tie party for Penelope, it's not for the usual job - this time he's sent away for several days with a special ops team for 'a bit of live action' as Brian Sinclair.

As readers find out about Salvo's mission, he also reveals other singular events in this pivotal day in his life. While eating in a trattoria, he watched a dapper, diminutive gentleman take his courage in his hands to speak out against a loud 'deluge of dialog' from an over-opinionated woman. And he met the love of his life, a Central African degree nurse named Hannah. They share a concern for the plight of their homeland where 'It's not bullets and pangas and hand grenades that are doing the killing. It's cholera, malaria, diarrhoea, and good old-fashioned starvation, and most of the dead are less than five years old.' Salvo and Hannah spend the night together, just before he disappears on his clandestine mission.

The neophyte secret agent successfully carries out his tasks - to translate during a secret conference of key figures whose objective is 'delivering democracy at the end of a gun barrel to the Eastern Congo', but also to listen in on participants' private conversations via electronic eavesdropping from the cellar. One of the delegates, Haj, refers to Salvo as a zebra (half black, half white). After hearing more than he was intended to, Salvo develops reservations about the intentions of the group he's working for, and sneaks out tapes. He returns to Hannah - leaving Penelope who's already ditched him - and they both try to understand what to do with the information he has, and in particular whom to trust.

They soon discover that no-one is who they appear to be, there are wheels within wheels, and the good of the Congolese people is not a priority to anyone involved. As can be expected - you don't beat the system in a Le Carré novel - the powers that be win, but Salvo and Hannah do make a difference, and there is a glimmering of hope in the ending. At age seventy-five, John Le Carré is still in fine writing fettle - don't miss Mission Song.

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