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The Interpreter

John le Carré
John le Carré (Tim Flach / Stone +)

For all that, The Mission Song has a comic, light-hearted touch. At the same time, it has the moral seriousness of le Carré's other novel of Africa, The Constant Gardener . As in that tale about the machinations of big pharmaceutical companies in Kenya, the villain here is a multinational corporation. Indeed, with the extinction of the Soviet Union, global capitalism seems to be fueling le Carré's literary energies. The chess matches between George Smiley, his Cold War spymaster, and Smiley's Soviet adversary, Karla, have been replaced by confused, asymmetrical warfare between somewhat hapless individuals such as Justin Quayle, the British diplomat in The Constant Gardener , and corporate giants that know no boundaries, moral or geographical.

A less worldly writer, or one with more left-wing axes to grind, would be tempted to portray these global titans as the sole authors of Africa's endless tragedy. Le Carré avoids that trap and presents African autocrats for the corrupt kleptomaniacs many of them are. Salvo and Hannah excepted, nobody in this book has clean hands, but some hands are dirtier than others.

Africa has become "hot" in recent years, and I don't mean the climate. It's a must-stop on the itineraries of Western celebrities from Bono to Madonna to Bill Clinton. Plagued by AIDS and malaria, ruled by vicious tyrants, wracked by civil wars and genocide, it is the irresistible magnet for aid agencies and missionaries, for whom it remains the "dark continent" in need of their salvation. It also remains what it's been since the colonial era: the place where foreign business interests (chiefly Western but increasingly Chinese as well) can make lots of money and extract natural resources.

The Syndicate in The Mission Song combines both the impulse to save and the urge to plunder. Salvo, his African conscience stirred through his affair with Hannah, suffers from a bit of savior complex himself. The Syndicate's purported mission -- to democratize his native country while making it a safer place to do business, thus bringing freedom and prosperity to all -- sings its siren song to him.

None of the action takes place in Africa. The setting is confined to London and a nameless island in the British channel. There, the Syndicate's representatives confer with two warlords and the son of a rich Congolese entrepreneur, Honoré Amour-Joyeuse, who goes by the nickname of Haj. The purpose of this exercise is to get the Africans to sign a contract pledging support to the Syndicate's scheme, its centerpiece being the installation in the eastern Congo of a government led by an aging, charismatic messiah called the Mwangaza. Granted exclusive rights to the region's vital minerals, the Syndicate will ensure that its profits are equitably distributed to the people.

If this sounds fishy to you, it should, and therein lies the novel's only major flaw. The key that winds the spring that drives the story is Salvo's naiveté. Le Carré skillfully draws an idealistic character less than half his age, but the reader may find, as I did, Salvo's gullibility difficult to accept. Almost from the moment he's given the mission, you sense that something is dreadfully wrong and wonder why Salvo doesn't, too.

Consequently, his awakening, when in the course of his interpretive work he hears things not intended for his ears, seems a bit contrived, his disillusionment a little too predictable. Things don't end well for Salvo either, and I was left with the feeling that he allowed himself to be bamboozled.

Nevertheless, the vividness of le Carré's characterizations -- Haj is marvelous and almost upstages Salvo -- and his adroit navigation of a plot with more twists and turns than the mountain segment of the Tour de France compensate for this shortcoming.

The Mission Song is a minor work compared with le Carré's big Cold War novels, but his skepticism, compassion and sense of moral outrage are as much in evidence here as in A Perfect Spy or The Honorable Schoolboy . To categorize him, as many do, as a "spy" novelist is to do him a disservice; he uses the world of cloak-and-dagger much as Conrad used the sea -- to explore the dark places in human nature. ·

Philip Caputo is the author of, most recently, "Acts of Faith."

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