Executive Times






2007 Book Reviews


The Mission Song by John le Carre




(Mildly Recommended)




Click on title or picture to buy from amazon.com






John le Carre is at his best when he delves into the dark sides of human behavior, and allows readers to understand that aspect of our nature. The best parts of his latest novel, The Mission Song, do just that, and some of these characters behave in the darkest of ways. The protagonist, Bruno "Salvo" Salvador, is a 29 year old Congo native, of mixed parentage, working in England as a translator, and married to an up and coming journalist. Relentlessly naïve throughout the book, Salvo faces the machinations of leaders, and remains unclear about who is doing good and who is doing evil. Here’s an excerpt, from the beginning of Chapter 2, pp. 22-25:


I am not one to believe in portents, auguries, fetishes, or magic white or black, although you can bet your bottom dollar it’s in there somewhere with my mother’s blood. The fact remains that my path to Hannah was flagged all the way, if I’d only had eyes to see it, which I didn’t.

The first recorded signal occurred on the Monday evening preceding the fatal Friday in question, at the Trattoria Bella Vista in Battersea Park Road, our local greasy spoon, where I was not enjoying a solitary meal of recycled cannelloni and Giancarlo’s weapons-grade Chianti. For self-improvement I had brought along with me a paperback copy of Antonia Fraser’s Cromwell, Our Chief of Men, English history being a weak spot in my armoury, which I was endeavouring to repair under the gracious guidance of Mr Anderson, himself a keen student of our island story. The trattoria was empty but for two other tables: the big one in the bay which was occupied by a vocal party of out-of-towners, plus a small one earmarked for lonely-hearts and this evening occupied by a dapper professional gentleman, perhaps retired, and diminutive in stature. I noted his shoes which were highly polished. Ever since the Sanctuary I have set store by polished shoes.

I had not intended to be eating recycled cannelloni. The day being the fifth anniversary of my marriage to Penelope, I had returned home early to prepare her favourite dinner, a coq au yin accompanied by a bottle of finest burgundy, plus a ripe Brie cut to size at our local deli. I should by now have become accustomed to the vagaries of the journalistic world, but when she called me in flagrante -- it was me who was in flagrante, I had just flambé’d the chicken joints to inform me that a crisis had arisen in the private life of a football star and she would not be home before midnight, I behaved in a manner that afterwards shocked me.

I did not scream, I am not the screaming kind. I’m a cool, assimilated, mid-brown Briton. I have reserve, often in greater measure than those with whom I have assimilated. I put the phone down gently. I then without further thought or pre­meditation consigned chicken, Brie and peeled potatoes to the waste-disposal unit, and put my finger on the GO button and kept it there, for how long I can’t say, but for considerably longer than was technically necessary, given that it was a young chicken offering little resistance. I woke again, as it were, to find myself striding briskly westwards down Prince of Wales Drive with Cromwell stuffed into my jacket pocket.

There were six diners at the oval table of the Bella Vista, three stalwart men in blazers and their equally heavy wives, all clearly accustomed to life’s good things. They hailed from Rickmansworth, I quickly learned, whether I wished to or not, and they called it Ricky. They had been attending an open-air matinée of The Mikado in Battersea Park. The dominant voice, a wife’s, disapproved of the production. She had never cared for the Japanese had she, darling? and giving them songs to sing did not, in her view, make them any nicer. Her monologue did not separate the topics but rolled on at the same level. Sometimes, pausing for what passed for thought, she would haw before resuming, but she need not have bothered because nobody had the temerity to interrupt her. From The Mikado she advanced without a breath or change of tone to her recent medical operation. The gynaecologist had made a total balls, but never mind, he was a personal friend and she had decided not to sue. From there she passed seamlessly to her daughter’s unsatisfactory artist husband, a layabout if ever she knew one. She had other opinions, all strong, all peculiarly familiar to me, and she was expressing them at full volume when the little gentleman of the polished shoes punched together the two halves of his Daily Telegraph and, having folded the result lengthways, hammered his table with it: slap, hang, slap, and one more for luck.

‘I will speak,’ he announced defiantly into the middle air. ‘I owe it to myself. Therefore I shall’ a statement of personal principle, addressed to himself and no one else.

After which he set course for the largest of the three stalwart men. The Bella Vista, being Italian, has a terrazzo floor and no curtains. The plastered ceiling is low and sheer. If they hadn’t heard his declaration of intent, at least they should have heard the ping of his polished shoes vibrating as he advanced, but the dominant wife was treating us to her views on modern sculpture which were not merciful. It took the little gentleman several loud Sirs to make his presence known.

‘Sir,’ he repeated, speaking as a matter of protocol strictly to the Head of the Table. ‘I came here to enjoy my meal and read my newspaper’ holding up what was left of it, like a dog-chew, as court evidence. ‘Instead of which, I find myself subjected to a veritable deluge of dialogue so loud, so trivial, so strident, that I am —yes’ the yes to acknowledge that he had obtained the attention of the table ‘And there is one voice, sir, one voice above all the rest I will not point the finger, I am a courteous man sir, I entreat you to restrain it.’

But having thus spoken, the little gentleman did not by any means quit the field. Rather he stood his ground before them like a brave freedom-fighter facing the firing squad, chest out, polished shoes together, the dog-chew stowed neatly at his side, while the three stalwart men stared incredulously at him, and the offended woman stared at her husband.

‘Darling,’ she murmured. ‘Do something.’

Do what? And what will I do if they do it? The big men from Ricky were old athletes, it was plain. The crests on their blazers exuded an heraldic lustre. It was not hard to suppose they were sometime members of a policemen’s rugby team. If they elected to beat the little gentleman to a pulp, what did one innocent brown bystander do, apart from get himself beaten into an even worse pulp, and arrested under the Anti-Terror laws into the bargain?

In the event, the men did nothing. Instead of beating him to a pulp and throwing what was left of him into the street and me after him, they fell to examining their brawny hands, and agreeing among themselves in loud asides that the poor fellow was obviously in need of help. Deranged. Could be a danger to the public. Or himself. Call an ambulance, someone.

As to the little gentleman, he returned to his table, laid a twenty-pound note on it and with a dignified ‘I give you good-night, sir’ directed at the bay and nothing at all at me, strode like a miniature colossus into the street, leaving me to draw comparisons between a man who says, ‘Yes, dear, I completely understand,’ and puts his coq au yin into the waste disposal, and the man who braves the lions’ den while I sit there pretending to read my Cromwell, Our Chief of Men.


Le Carre’s prose brings pleasure to most readers, and he maintains he skills throughout The Mission Song. The novel falls short with some implausible plot lines, and the ways in which relationships don’t seem to make much sense. Less than stellar le Carre is still better than most novels, but my expectations fell short from the latest novel by this master.


Steve Hopkins, June 25, 2007



Buy The Mission Song

@ amazon.com

Go To Hopkins & Company Homepage



Go to 2007 Book Shelf

Go to Executive Times Archives


Go to The Big Book Shelf: All Reviews





*    2007 Hopkins and Company, LLC


The recommendation rating for this book appeared

 in the July 2007 issue of Executive Times


URL for this review: http://www.hopkinsandcompany.com/Books/The Mission Song.htm


For Reprint Permission, Contact:

Hopkins & Company, LLC • 723 North Kenilworth AvenueOak Park, IL 60302
Phone: 708-466-4650 • Fax: 708-386-8687

E-mail: books@hopkinsandcompany.com