The Mission Song

September 22, 2008

Title: The Mission Song
Author: John Le Carre
Reader: David Oyelowo
Audiobook 2007
Length: 12 hours

3 Stars

Buy or rent for less at: The Audio Book Store

John Le Carre is probably best known for his cold-war spy books including two of my all-time favorites, Tinker Tailor Soldier, Spy and Smiley’s People. The term mole to describe a double agent planted deep inside an enemy spy service was coined by Le Carre several decades ago. His detailed plots with complex characters and layers of deception are considered masterworks of modern spy fiction.

Now that the cold war is more or less over, the author has turned his eye towards international conflicts whether it is the Middle East as in the Little Drummer Girl, or the disintegration of the Soviet empire in Russia House. The Constant Gardner, published in 2000 and made into a very fine movie is about the tragedy of AIDS in Africa and how global corporate interests are the new threat. Le Carre returns to the topic of Africa in The Mission Song, published in 2007. Unlike The Constant Gardner, this story’s action never leaves the confines of the British Empire, but the actions described have profound effect on people thousands of miles away.

It would be an injustice to call this book a suspense or thriller, rather it is a high quality literary fiction work. Le Carre writes elegant, tight, descriptive prose that creates very real characters. Here our protagonist is Bruno Salvo, the illegitimate son of an Irish missionary father and a Congolese mother an interpreter fluent in English, French, Swahili and several other African languages. There are lots of humorous touches in this book; an early example in Salvo’s narrative is a caustic description of the difference between an interpreter and a translator; a description that seems spot-on to me. However, British humor is just that, an acquired taste. So while many reviews remark on how The Mission Song is Le Carre’s most humorous, I guess I missed a good deal of that light-hearted tone. This seemed to me to be a very serious work about how global interests answer to no one.

The early part of the story is sets up the back story of Salvo, done in beautiful style, with lots of detail that helps you understand some of the character’s choices later on. The real story kicks into gear after disc one when Salvo is hired to do some interpreting of negotiations between business interests and Congolese warlords. It does not end well.

I can think of only one other time that I felt the reader made the audio book. That was Jim Dale’s performance of the seven Harry Potter books. David Oyelowo, someone I’m not familiar with, but is quite well known, reads with such style, simplicity and control that he makes Salvo come to life. He handles the accents perfectly to my ear, and brings quiet intensity to the text.

This book is not for everyone. If you have an interest in quality literary fiction, or have read The Constant Gardner, try this one.

Reviewed on 9/15/08 by Robert W. Karp

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