Salvo against the powers

 

Fiction: For 30 years, new novels by John le Carré were routinely described as spy thrillers, a classification which ignored the depth of the author's characterisation and the seriousness of his intent. Since the end of the Cold War, however, le Carré has turned his attention away from the world of espionage and concentrated instead on the morality of international politics, exploring the issue of American globalisation in Absolute Friends and the collusion of western powers in the corruption of the African pharmaceutical industry in The Constant Gardener.

And now, in his 20th novel, he shows no sign of allowing his anger at injustice to wane as he delivers another scorching indictment of how far the West will go to maintain its imperial hold over a continent whose constituent states supposedly gained independence long ago.

The Mission Song is narrated by 28-year-old Salvo, the son of a white Irish missionary and a 14-year-old Congolese native girl, whose gift for African languages and dialects has led him to a career as an interpreter in England. There's an almost Dickensian feeling to the opening of the story: a thoughtful boy, born to sainted parents, is orphaned at a young age and left to struggle for survival in a hostile environment before finally making his way to London. (Whether that hostility is more pronounced in Gen Mobutu's Zaire or Tony Blair's Britain is left to the reader to decide.) His nurturing of dialects from childhood provides him with both an identity and a career, but also allows him to blend, chameleon-like, into whatever surroundings he finds himself. A man of mixed race and indefinable colour, an immigrant who speaks many languages but has no native tongue, Salvo is in the unique position of being "the one person in the room nobody can do without".

Salvo's gifts as an interpreter have been recognised by British intelligence, who assign him to a multinational group known as "The Syndicate", whose sinister plans for a Congolese coup are masked in good intentions. His discovery of their true objectives, however, leaves him with questions of personal morality which lie at the heart of this provocative novel. For years, Salvo has sat by quietly, never questioning the secrets his work has made him privy to, believing that the role of the translator is not dissimilar to that of a priest in a confessional, little more than the medium through which the words are passed on to another. However, with the fate of his countrymen in his hands, he is faced by choices which bring him resolutely back to the very world which he has escaped.

"An interpreter," le Carré tells us, "when he has nothing to interpret except himself, is a man adrift"; the decisions that Salvo makes during the brief few days of this novel will define for him whether he is swallowed by the tides or can find his way to shore.

Make no mistake, John le Carré is one of the most profoundly political writers of our time and his recent novels are studded with the kind of righteous anger and conviction that make them compulsory reading. The man who recently indicted the Iraq war as "one of the great public relations conjuring tricks of history" is brutal on what he sees as a dictatorial western society and demands that we, his readers, question our own complicity in its proliferation. And yet, for all that, The Mission Song is a novel filled with suspense and drama, a page-turner which challenges us on every page.

Reading this book in the same week that a movie star spoke about Darfur before the United Nations, one can easily see the difference between a compulsion to persuade and a desire to promote; le Carré needs no cameras, no entourage, no audience with the world's media to make his point. He has something much more powerful than that at his disposal: his pen. And for that we should all be grateful. And we should be listening too.

John Boyne's most recent novel is The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas. His fifth novel, Next of Kin, will be published by Penguin in October

In his 20th novel, John le Carré's anger at political injustice shows no sign of waning The Mission Song By John le Carré Hodder & Stoughton, 339pp. £17.99