2006_10_arts_lecarre.jpgOf all the genre-transcending brilliance of John Le Carré’s Cold War novels, perhaps the most impressive was the even, subtle brush with which he painted either side of his idealogical divide. The British Intelligence and Moscow Centre were equal foes – it simply depended on which side of the curtain you found yourself. The Cold War was, undoubtedly, Le Carré’s playing field, and his mastery of it was legendary. And although the world has moved on, I wouldn’t have said it has left Mr. Le Carré behind. The Tailor of Panama and Single & Single were both well-written books that prove you can teach an oldish dog some newish tricks. Until now, however. With his latest novel, The Mission Song, Le Carré has gone almost alarmingly in the direction of the already-preachy Absolute Friends, which had at least the benefit of still being a well-crafted spy novel until the third act.

The novel follows Bruno Salvador, known as Salvo, from his childhood in Eastern Congo as the son of an Irish Catholic missionary and a Congolese village woman. Raised in the Mission and something of an embarassment to his protectors, Salvo grows up knowing how to straddle the divide between two worlds and in his adulthood, finds bourgeousie success as an top-flight interpreter in London, speaking dozens of languages fluently. Salvo, like so many immigrants, is braggingly proud of his rise to comfort and affluence – cocky in his business contacts, blustering in his confidence when Le Carré’s old spooks (once known as the Circus) ask him to be a listener and sound-thief for the Crown.

So when Salvo is asked to attend an ultra-secret conference between three warlords of the Eastern Congo and that area’s great idealistic candidate for power, of course he ignores all sorts of warning bells that Le Carré leaves lying around – the no-name Syndicate backing this conference, the remote and unknown location. He’s there to interpret, contribute to the salvation of his beloved Eastern Congo, and if he’s got to listen in on private conversations in a multitude of African languages that the guests don’t know he possesses, what could be wrong with that?

Only, as Salvo starts to unravel the very sordid and money-soiled truths that Le Carré has assured us of all along, the novel turns into a thriller chase of deceit and entrapment. So we progress from the plodding, dialogue-heavy conference into an increasingly sloppy action thriller where Big Brother is everwhere and our narrator is stripped of his ideals.

The novel fails for a few reasons. Overwhelmingly, the tone and the narration are inconsistent and very personal. Salvo sometimes refers to himself in the third person; he gets lost in the soft-focus romance with a young Congolese nurse named Hannah. Would George Smiley (Le Carré’s calculating and fedora’d hero from the Cold War days) be this whimsical, this scattered, and this gullible? The romance of the novel on all levels is unsuccessful and lowers the bar – the vague longing for a return to an Africa seemingly plucked from every other novel about Africa, the sudden and arresting love affair with the Perfect Woman, the high ideals and their swift destruction. These are all things that any other novel would race to include, but their marginality has always been Le Carré’s strength.

And worse, perhaps, than the bits gone soft are the bits gone terribly, terribly hard. Gone is the subtle understanding of power plays and the compromises of the international game. Gone is the delicate, almost ordinary actions of a Cold War spy and his equal and formidable rival across the curtain. Gone, even, is the humor and wit with which Le Carré navigated through The Tailor of Panama, or the force of Single & Single.

It’s all replaced by very good good guys and very bad bad guys – the Syndicate, in their anonymous global domination, the conference-runner and smooth evil operator, Phillip. And it’s clear that Le Carré’s bad guys consume him much more these days; for every few moments of true, legitimate action, there are pages of rhetoric and rage against the prevailing economic neocolonialism of the West.

What results is a highly simplistic novel, without the benefit of suspense. It’s only Salvo that doesn’t realize who the bad guys are here – the rest of us are having it shoved at us from page one. It’s fuzzy, high-minded, and not the subtle, suspenseful thrill of espionage of old. And although he will always be the riveting master of unforgettable characters like Smiley and Karla, Alec Leamas and Toby Esterhase, it seems that times have changed, and so has John Le Carré.