Monday, March 19, 2007

The Mission Song

I have enjoyed some of the books I've read by John le Carré, but not all of them. I tried a couple of his earlier books and found them impossible to follow; all those men in grey suits blurred together. I liked The Little Drummer Girl and The Constant Gardener (the African setting of the latter helped), but I didn't like The Tailor of Panama - again, I found it difficult to follow. (All of these books are violent and full of profanity, just so you know.)

This latest novel, The Mission Song, is one that I liked. I enjoyed the perspective of Bruno Salvador, the top interpreter, though I could hardly believe someone with his experiences would really be so naive. People are out for their own interests instead of truth and justice? I'm shocked, shocked! Come on, Bruno.

My favorite passages all had to do with languages. Bruno grew up in Eastern Congo, the son of an Irish priest and the daughter of a village headman. He tells us that as a child he spent much of his time with the mission servants. "It was there...that my ever-growing love of the Eastern Congo's many languages and dialects took root. Hoarding them as my dear late father's precious legacy, I covertly polished and refined them, storing them in my head as protection from I knew not what perils, pestering native and missionary alike for a nugget of vernacular or turn of phrase. In the privacy of my tiny cell I composed my own childish dictionaries by candlelight. Soon, these magic puzzle-pieces became my identity and refuge, the private sphere that nobody could take away from me and only the few enter." And later: "every language was precious to me, not only the heavyweights but the little ones that were condemned to die for want of written form;...the missionary's son needed to run after these erring sheep and lead them back to the fold;...I heard legend, history, fable and poetry in them and the voice of my imagined mother regaling me with spirit-tales." There's lots more wonderful writing like this.

Ultimately, Bruno becomes another le Carré hero who tries to do the right thing and ends up in a mess because of it. But nevertheless I found his story well worth reading. I hope le Carré keeps writing about Africa.

No comments: