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Bookends: The Trials of a Translator April 28, 2012

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends.
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Bookends: The Trials of a Translator

By Dan Davidson

February 15, 2012

Star, Feb. 17/12

– 820 words –


The Mission Song

By John LeCarré

Penguin Books

435 pages



When the Cold War came to an end with the collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989, some people hailed it as also being the end of the spy novel. John LeCarré, who had created his signature character, George Smiley, as a sort of Agatha Christie style sleuth in a couple of mystery novels before he hit the big time with The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (in which Smiley plays a minor role before taking center stage again in Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) knew better.

The first thing to note is that spy novels have been popular since before the First World War. One of our Governors General, Lord Tweedsmuir, achieved fame writing as John Buchan, and his classic The 39 Steps, has been reworked a number of times, including a recent farcical turn in Whitehorse.

The aforementioned Tinker, Tailor was a television mini-series after being a hit novel decades ago and has recently surfaced in a really good film version.

Spy stories don’t seem to go out of fashion, no matter what the state of the world may be; however, the settings may change. That was LeCarré’s response to change: to move his stories around the world and get away from the strict limitations of the Free World v.s. Communism.

The Mission Song is narrated to us by Bruno Salvador, the orphaned love-child of a Catholic missionary and a Congolese headman’s daughter. After the death of his parents Salvo, as he is generally known, is raised at a mission school and at another school reserved for the secret sons of Rome. He has a natural facility for languages and his mentor (and lover, it would seem), Brother Michael, encourages him to train as a professional interpreter.

Salvo ends up living in England and becomes a star in this small universe, is in much demand by corporations, law courts, hospitals and, of course, the British Intelligence Services, for whom he does a lot of contract work.

Salvo has a complicated personal life as well as a convoluted professional one. He has been married for some time to Penelope, a white Anglo businesswoman who seems to have viewed him as a kind of trophy. This relationship has satisfied him until, near the beginning of this adventure, he meets and falls hard for Hannah, a Congolese nurse who is training in England. He is planning the dissolution of his marriage when he is called into service at a higher level than ever before.

Transported to a no-name island in the North Sea, Salvo is tasked with both translating and spying on negotiations taking place among a group of high ranking Congolese players who are planning, so they say, to take over the country and liberate it from all the factions (including those from other countries) who are keeping the Congo from being a united, progressive state.

This gathering is made up of some very quirky and devious individuals and as the talks progress over a couple of days, Salvo becomes convinced that all is not what it seems to be. In both his public work at the negotiations table, and his secret eves dropping on the wired house and grounds from his post in the basement, Salvo learns that this is all really a corporate coup. While a government may be installed at the end of it, the corporate raiders will have pillaged the fractured nation’s resources and the outcome is not at all likely to be what is being claimed.

Back in England with a batch of pilfered audiotape and the notebooks he was supposed to have relinquished at the end of his task, Salvo does his best to prevent events from unspooling as planned. In a way he is successful, but it is not the kind of success he had in mind. This truly well meaning, naïve man is caught up in events he can hardly understand, and betrayed in ways he was unable to imagine beforehand.

About half of LeCarré’s books end on a sad note, despite what people who saw the recent Tinker, Tailor movie might think. In fact the final scene in that film speaks to the wreck that is Smiley’s marriage and his inability to deal with it, something that is far clearer in the book and in the mini-series.

Salvo’s dilemma is that he wants to do the right thing and is surrounded by people who take advantage of that. The cover of the book shows a zebra, something that makes no sense until you realize that this is how others see the half-white, half-African Salvo. He is a man who doesn’t quite fit in anywhere and is used by others as they find it convenient, to be discarded when it is not.










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