John le Carre is one of the few writers whose novels I buy in hard-cover, sight unseen, reviews unread.
Unfortunately, although by no means a bad book, le Carre's newest novel, The Mission Song is a disappointing follow-up to Absolute Friends his brilliantly prescient, and thoroughly enraged, take on the still-ongoing invasion of Iraq.
Once again, le Carre brings us into the dark and cynical world of espionage, this time through the person of Bruno Salvador. Known as Salvo, he is a 29 year-old orphan, son of an Irish-Catholic missionary and a Congolese woman, now living in Britain and proud to be there. He is married to a rising (and unfaithful) journalist and makes his own living as a translator; he is fluent in several African languages, along with several European tongues.
By the time the novel opens, he has also begun to work in a part-time capacity for the British secret service, now called upon to perform his deepest (most "deniable") work yet: a two-day conclave on a mysterious Island, where are gathered together an anonymous group of Western financiers, East Congolese warlords, and a man known as the Mwangaza, an almost saintly figure (or so he seems) who is determined to bring peace to his wartorn land.
The bulk of the novel occurs over the course of that two-day conference, during which Salvo loses his innocence, if not - yet - his faith in the basic goodness of the powers-that-be in England.
Like all of le Carre's recent novels, The Mission Song once again eloquently portrays a world - the Western world, our world - that is economically and politically corrupt and exploitative, calling plunder "aid" and imperialism "trade", where true idealists are used, then tossed aside, sometimes figuratively, often literally.
However, unlike the masterful Absolute Friends, which managed to triple-balance a thrilling adventure, deeply-wrought characters and two intense relationships along with le Carre's own rage at his own country's betrayal of all of its self-proclaimed virtues, The Mission Song feels more like the work of a professional writer going through his paces than it does that of an artist at the peak of his abilities.
This reader, at least, never quite believe in the character, Salvo, let alone in the nurse with whom he so improbably - and improbably intensely falls in love. Possibly this was due to the fact both characters are Congolese immigrants, but the whole novel feels more like a mechanical le Carre exercise than it does an organic le Carre work of art.
If you already know le Carre's work, wait for this one to come out in paper; if you haven't read him yet, do yourself a favour and pick up a copy of his previous book, Absolute Friends.