Way back when, at the height of the Cold War between the forces of good (The West) and forces of evil (The East), when Germany, especially Berlin, was still considered a combination of no-man's- and everyone-for-themselves land, British writer David Cornwall adopted the name John Le Carré and changed the face of the spy novel.
He had the temerity to suggest that just maybe our guys weren't all heroes and their guys weren't all villains. Then there were his heroes; oh sure there were some rough and tumble field agents and the like, but even they were a far cry from James Bond and his exploding women and sexy cigarette holder. (Or is that the other way 'round?) Nary an Alfa Romeo or handgun to be seen and they never hung out in the casinos of the world playing blackjack or baccarat.
But it was his re-creation of the British Intelligence Service as the old boys' network that it was — from faded leather elbow patches on the sweater jackets worn by the don-like heads of department, the weak tea served at meetings, the bad plumbing in the buildings, and of course the deep cover spy (or mole, don't you know old chap) — that was so captivating.
In the hangover of Philby, Burgess, and MacLean, the original three Moscow agents discovered working for British Intelligence, and the subsequent revelations about Sir Anthony Blunt (The Queen's art historian for pity's sake) Le Carré's triad of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier…Spy, The Honourable Schoolboy, and Smiley's People so blurred the lines between reality and fiction that when later adapted for television and George Smiley was recreated by Alec Guiness, I'm sure most people couldn't help but picture Sir Alec as the face of British Intelligence for years after.
The end of the Cold War didn't mean an end to spying and it didn't bring a stop to Mr. Le Carré's writing. The tenor of some of the writing changed, becoming more introspective, especially as the lines between "good" and "bad" grew so faint as to be almost non-existent. When today's staunchest ally could be tomorrow's deadliest enemy for reasons that weren't really pertinent to the investigation (best just get on with it old son, leave the brain work to the wallah wallahs) the ability to walk backwards while looking like you were walking straight ahead became essential.
As the world changed, so did Le Carré's books and characters to reflect that changing nature. No longer did the ubiquitous Oxford or Cambridge dons populate the backroom meetings or clandestine drops. Accents from around the world began to make appearances as he kept pace with the polyglot nature of the shifting axis of power. With each new book, where would Le Carré's burgeoning social conscience take him? That was the question a reader asked.
His books have never become polemic to the point of lecturing, but they make clear that he is unhappy with the rapacious nature of the world, everything centred around wealth and greed instead of some misty ideal of serving one's country or a least preventing someone else from serving their country at your expense.
So it should be no surprise that in his latest novel The Mission Song, Le Carré is once more showing how money does indeed make the world go round. This time he has chosen the eyes of an innocent for us to see the world through, whose naiveté slips only once or twice, but enough for us to know that he is not quite the naïf he depicts himself to be. Bruno Salvador works as an interpreter, but in the rather unique field of the tribal dialects of Africa.
Bruno is the by-product of a lapse of celibacy on the part of an Irish priest on missionary work in the Congo with the daughter of one of the "parish's" headmen. Bruno's father convinces the young girl that she should surrender her newborn to some good Carmelite nuns, because as he rightly says, a half-breed son would not sit well her father. She did as instructed, and returned to her village where she and the rest of her clan were wiped out in one of the frequent intertribal violent incidents that mark the history of the Congo.
Bruno was raised in the mission where he saw his father every day, although it wasn't until he was ten that he found out that "Father" and father were one and the same, and became fluent in English and French. Because he was obviously a half-caste and different, nobody would play with him and he was dismissed as a metis or worse. It was this isolation and a natural affinity for languages that made him into the translator he became in adult life. He would sit and watch and listen, gleaning tidbits of information about the different languages and the nuances that separated them.
With the aid of the Mission where he was raised, when his father died, he was turned by magic into a British citizen and repatriated "home" to live in a Catholic boys' boarding school. Although details are not supplied, your worst fears are of course true, although Bruno seems somewhat ambivalent about the whole thing. But as a result of acquiescence with a certain member of the clergy, he manages to receive quite an extraordinary schooling in all sorts of translation specialties.
When he graduates he quickly works his way up the ladder and soon has clients among the merchant bankers who are dissecting Africa amongst themselves and need someone to translate delicate financial negotiations, the press for translating informants (one of those married him to take home to papa and shock, but she was bored by his desire to conform and soon bored of her novelty), and of course, finally, Her Majesty's Government started hiring him on a part-time basis to serve Queen and Country.
Needless to say it's through his affiliation with the latter people that Bruno finds himself whisked off to a mysterious island somewhere North to translate between three Congolese power brokers, an independent consortium of businessmen, and the self-proclaimed saviour of the Congo who will lift the people from poverty and liberate them from the tyranny of Rwanda and others who have raped and despoiled their country for ages.
At the conference table Bruno only speaks French, English, and Swahili. But during meal breaks and times out for a breath of air, he's down a flight of stairs into an electronic surveillance pit to eavesdrop in any of the dialects the delegates choose to talk in amongst themselves for privacy.
When he discovers it's all just a guise for the same old same old – revolt, bloodshed, people dying, and foreign nationals stripping the land of millions of dollars of natural resources – Bruno wants to do something, but is not sure what. He secrets on himself seven of what he considers the most incriminating tapes and some of his notes in the hopes that he can prevent the planned events.
Le Carré hasn't lost any of his abilities as storyteller as the years have progressed and his writing is still as crisp and clean as it always has been. His agents still talk in that strange polite manner that belies murderous intent, and make everything sound like words you'd hear exchanged in any civil servant's meeting. They could be arranging the shipment of twenty thousand pens or twenty thousand mortar rounds for all anybody can tell by the inflection of their voices.
It's this casualness and urbanity of their conversation that makes them so wantonly evil and greedy. These are the direct descendants of those who made the Empire the merciless place it was. Masters of pillaging with a pen stroke they cast a jaundiced eye over the remnants of colonial rule around the world and see how they best suck new blood from a stone.
Fifty years ago coltan was just a hunk of useless rock; now every cell phone in the world has to have some in it or it wouldn't function. Of course there are always the old favourites such as oil, gold, and diamonds, just to keep everyone happy. They can sit directly in front of the people they will be screwing out of millions of dollars and tell them what a positive thing they are doing for their country and not skip a beat as they congratulate them on their courage and foresight.
In reality they are just reprising their role as colonial masters without having to deal with any of the problems associated with occupying a country. These modern methods are far more efficient and nobody ever need find out which country is taking advantage of the situation. It's globalization refined to an art form; the ultimate in free trade.
For Le Carré this is fairly straightforward stuff, with only a little bit of mystery surrounding Bruno himself. Can he really be as naïve as he makes himself out to be? There is the occasional clue dropped that maybe he is not quite who claims he is, the wide-eyed half-blood African child who grew up under the not so tender care of Roman Catholic priests. How is it that everything so conveniently falls into place for him? Perhaps he really is what he says he is, or is he too good to be true?
The Mission Song shows Le Carré is as in tune and aware of the world around him as he ever was, and just as quick to point out the various moral ambiguities our countries get up to in the name of duty and the country's well being. This is his attempt to plead for the people of Africa that one day we might just leave them the hell alone to try and recover from the mess we have left them in.
If we could only keep our greedy hands to ourselves, he seems to be imploring, the day may come when Africa will be able to flourish like it deserves. That's a good dream to hold on to.