John le Carre is known around the world for his cold-war sagas, with the Smiley Karla chronicles featuring one of the most memorable on-screen fight pair ever created. However, there is another class of novels which the author writes, with the chief subject among them being Africa.
The Constant Gardener (which I read some time back and whose review can be found in my blog) was one of the first novels where he explored the apathy of the British Foreign Office towards the African people and their collusion with the local politicians and powerful pharma companies who offload near expiry date medicines in the name of aid in Africa and use African women as guinea pigs for testing new medicines.
His latest offering is The Mission Song. The focus shifts westward from Kenya to the Democratic Republic of Congo, with the main thrust area being Kivu on the eastern border with Rwanda. This place has long been the scene of war between the better equipped Rwandan militia who plunder the mineral rich region with all their might. Innocent civilians are caught in the crossfire and this has lead the war in Kivu to being the bloodiest war in history after World War II in terms of people killed and displaced, which makes it the bloodiest war being fought currently. But apart from the Africans and a few American and British oil companies, no one really knows of this war. Using a fictional story with its theme taken from true events, Congo and in particular, the Kivu region forms the backbone of John le Carre’s story.
Bruno Salvador is the illegitimate son of a Congolese woman and an Irish missionary worker. Born in the eastern Congo and coming in contact with many people across his travels with his father, he becomes interested in the myriad languages of the region and upon arriving in UK, masters all of them and becomes an interpreter. He is not satisfied with the nature of the jobs that he gets (interpreting Congolese men admitted to the hospital to the nurses etc) and the remuneration that he gets in return. He is also not happy with his personal life as his wife has married him not for his nature and good looks, but just to get even with her sister who had married a worthless man.
Soon our protagonist gets a chance of his life to prove himself. The Syndicate, an anonymous organization, is trying to bring peace to the Kivu region. The three main warring parties are being brought together in the attempt to reach a diplomatic agreement. Salvador, or Salvo as he is known among his colleagues, is appointed as the interpreter for this conference as the members of the Syndicate do not speak the eastern Congo languages. Knowing well that this could be a chance for him to do some good for his adopted country, he agrees. He is flown discreetly to an island in the north and once, during a lunch break, he listens to his employer torturing an African delegate. Even as the deal is signed, he steals the tape fearing all is not well.
Salvo realizes that the peace deal was mainly a part of a plot by the Western powers, who own the Syndicate, to get access to the tons of raw minerals lying in the Kivu area by organizing a coup during a peace rally and giving some throwback to the three parties involved. In short, the situation would have remained same as before in the Kivu region, with no development and only war.
Back in Britain, Salvo tries to alert the authorities in the British Foreign Office with the help of his lover, Hannah, but he soon realizes that everyone in the office is in collusion with the Syndicate. Hannah and Salvo are caught and while Hannah is deported back to Congo, Salvo is transferred to a maximum security holding facility. Towards the end, it is revealed that although the Syndicate managed to smuggle arms into the region, their attempt at the coup failed.
John le Carre brings the emotion of the lead character and his dilemma alive with his prose one would not have thought possible from a man who wrote mainly about the “Cold” war. This is among those rare reads that one comes across in his life that is not easy to put down once you start reading.