THE MISSION SONG
By John le Carré
Little, Brown. 339 pp. $26.99
I don't know what accounts for the longevity of so many contemporary American and European writers, in terms of both lifespans and productivity. Not too long ago, short lives were common in the literary world. Today, the likes of Saul Bellow, pounding the keys almost to the moment of his death at 89, or Philip Roth, who arguably has done his best work after becoming eligible for Medicare, or Gunter Grass, making headlines with his new memoir at 78, are the rule.
I am reminded of a comment Thomas McGuane made a few years ago: With so many authors living so long, a writer nowadays can remain a young writer well into middle age. Sixty is the new 40.
Now comes The Mission Song , the 20th novel by Britain's John le Carré, who turns 75 this year and shows no signs of fatigue. His prose is as lovely and expressive as ever; his ear for dialogue remains wonderfully acute. Each of the characters in The Mission Song speaks with a distinctive voice, so that the usual interjections of "so-and-so said" seem almost superfluous.
An ear for speech is the genius of le Carré's protagonist, Bruno Salvador, an interpreter fluent in English, French, Swahili and several other African languages such as Kinyarwanda (the native tongue of Rwanda) and Shi (spoken in the eastern Congo).
Salvo, as he's known to his friends (some of whom later become his enemies), came to this linguistic mastery early in life. Born in the eastern Congo, the orphaned love-child of an Irish Catholic missionary priest and a Congolese woman whom he never knew, he attended a secret school where the sons of errant priests were sent for higher education. There, his mentor and erstwhile lover, Brother Michael, inspired him to train as a professional interpreter in the tribal languages he'd absorbed from childhood.
Eventually, he arrived in England and gained British citizenship. The mixed-race foreigner furthered his integration into British society by marrying a white celebrity journalist, Penelope. The marriage has gone sour when the novel opens, and Salvo enters into an adulterous affair with Hannah, a Congolese nurse at a London Hospital. The love story, deftly handled, serves as a subplot to an intricate thriller.
Salvo is a star in his unusual profession and vain about his abilities. He relishes the fact that he is "the one person in the room nobody can do without." Early in the story, which he narrates, he tells us that there is a world of difference between a mere translator, who can get by with mediocre language skills and a good dictionary, and a top interpreter. Hired by large corporations, law firms and hospitals, he also works part-time for the British Secret Service in a London basement known as "The Chat Room." It looks like a boiler-room operation, but those people in cubicles wearing headsets are interpreters eavesdropping on sensitive telephone conversations all over the world.
In establishing his main character's backstory, le Carré's pacing is neither overly leisured nor mechanically efficient. The tale gets moving when the Chat Room supervisor assigns Salvo to act as a simultaneous translator at a hush-hush meeting between Congolese warlords and a shadowy syndicate of Western financiers. As naive as he is vain, ardent to serve queen and country, Salvo accepts. From then on, with the hooked reader in tow, he plunges into familiar le Carré territory, a world of conspiracies, treachery and deceit.