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Lost in translation

The Mission Song A Novel John Le Carre Little, Brown: 352 pp., $26.99

September 17, 2006|Richard Schickel | Richard Schickel is the author of many books, including "Elia Kazan: A Biography" and "The Essential Chaplin."

BRUNO SALVADOR (known to one and all as "Salvo") is a young translator, working in London for a variety of masters -- lawyers, doctors and (how can it be otherwise, since he's the creation of John Le Carre?) a secret branch of the British government. He is, however, no ordinary linguistic mediator. He has what amounts to a genius for his craft, a mastery not just of the major languages of his native land, the Eastern Congo, but most of its tribal tongues as well.

Salvo is as fluid in his nature as he is fluent with languages. The bastard child of an Irish Catholic priest and an anonymous Congolese woman, he is racially divided, and he's a riot of conflicting ambitions as well. On the one hand, he wishes to rise in English society. To that end, he is married to Penelope, an upper-class white woman who is a star in tabloid journalism and about whose many sexual strayings he is complaisant. On the other hand, he is aware of the many bloody tragedies afflicting his native land and, in his vague, accommodating way, would like to do something to alleviate some of them -- if that could be accomplished without harming his own ambitions.

Early in "The Mission Song," two things happen to Salvo. While translating for a dying man in a London hospital, he meets (and instantly falls in love with) a nurse named Hannah, also Congolese. She is as passionate politically as she is when in bed with him.

At the same time, his government masters persuade Salvo to serve as official translator for a mysterious conference taking place on a remote resort island in the North Sea. Its ostensible purpose is for an anonymous cartel to incite a revolution in the Eastern Congo and to establish Mwangaza, an honorable and widely beloved liberal intellectual, as head of state. Under his leadership, they say, the proceeds from their exploitation of the region's mineral wealth will be shared with its suffering people. In actuality, they are planning yet another rape of that unhappy land, and they have imported three thugs to the conference to help them attain that goal and, of course, to share the proceeds.

Every room in the resort is bugged, so in addition to his duties as translator, Salvo's duties include repairing to a basement lair, where he listens in on private conversations, conducted in local dialects, by the delegates. He hears plenty, including the torture of one of them. Appalled, he decides to purloin tapes and notes of what he has heard and attempts, with Hannah's help, to place this evidence before people who may be able to foil the plot.

This is by no means a bad story line for a novel that is, by the rather elephantine standards of Le Carre's work since "The Spy Who Came in From the Cold," relatively short and shapely. It also has an ironic, at least half-comical, tone that is not common in Le Carre's work and is sometimes effectively deployed here. Salvo is the narrator, and his voice has an interesting innocence. He is equally surprised by the depth of passion that he and Hannah so quickly discover and by the depths of the political duplicity he uncovers. He is very much the talented, ambitious provincial who thinks he knows more than he actually does about how the sophisticated world works. This is especially effective in the novel's first act, as he is drawn into everyone's manipulations -- those of his wife, his apparently rectitudinous spymaster boss and the hearty and cynical men who are handling arrangements for the conference.

It is also useful to Le Carre when the scales fall from Salvo's eyes and he and Hannah desperately seek succor from the powerful people who could stop the coup. They all betray the couple. Salvo and Hannah are not in truly deadly peril as the book winds up, but the reader forms a strong identification with them. We can imagine our do-gooding liberal selves overcome by a similar desperation if we were forced to take real-world action on behalf of beliefs more comfortably advanced from a sitting position.

The problem with "The Mission Song" is in its second part, in which Le Carre is obliged to provide a lengthy rendering of the secret conclave. Its principals are appropriately unprincipled. But their deliberations -- even when they are enlivened by the aforementioned torture sequence -- are Byzantine, endlessly talkative and not easy or rewarding to follow. To be sure, this long sequence contains (and it is admittedly artfully hidden) the beginnings of a solution to the novel's overarching political dilemma. But that does not compensate for the loss of momentum that this passage causes. Or for its loss of ironic tonality, either.

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