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What colour is a zebra?,
This review is from: The Mission Song (Hardcover)
It's easy to think of translators as robots. Words of one language go in and those of another language come out. In the middle, however, there resides a human being with intellect, feelings and beliefs. Bruno Salvador, "Salvo", insists that there are "translators" and there are "interpreters". The latter, he contends, has to think fast and detect the nuances of speech from both sides of a bi-lingual conversation. Mistaking the one for the other leads to loss of essence in what's being conveyed. In this tale, Le Carre, who's clearly lost nothing in the passage of years, demonstrates with eloquent skill, the differences in the two terms and what can result when mistakes are made in using a competent interpreter as a mere translator.
Bruno, the product of an African mission school, is also the product of an errant priest. He's developed a dual identity - he's trying to become a realistic element of British society, while his knowledge of African culture remains deeply imbued in his thinking. It's the perfect situation for an interpreter properly used. One user, British Intelligence takes him up for his talents in a special task. He's to act almost as a "front" when warring African leaders confer with a newly rising messianic figure. Whisked off to a remote location in the British Isles, he is thrown into a tangle of intrigue. Drawing on a store of knowledge about African conditions, Le Carre weaves threads of personal self-interest and corporate machinations to produce a grim image of how imperialism works in the 21st Century. That the focus of the story is the situation in the ravaged Congo makes the picture immeasurably poignant.
Salvo's domestic situation adds additional complications, since he's married to a beautiful, British Establishment journalist, but in love with a Congolese nurse. As with so many Africans in Britain, Hannah hasn't shed her roots by passing through the processes of the British Immigration service. Britons don't hyphenate as is the practice in the US, and identity remains a murky burden. Anything that might alleviate conditions at home might well lead to a mass return. Hannah kindles in Salvo a desire to return to the Congo, fuelled by the slights both have endured in the racist society of Britain. Salvo has been referred to as a "zebra" neither black nor white. There's a chance to end both tribal strife and neo-colonialism. But the circumstances in the Congo can be manipulated to corporate advantage, as the creation of the Syndicate that hires Salvo displays. Manipulation is the key to divide and rule - except rule is less important here than profit. Hannah's hopes and Salvo's desire to support them are stacked against powerful forces.
Le Carre has always written of matters of concern. Although always depicting his characters with skill and precision, he leads them into events beyond their control or their ken. We are never in doubt of the reality of characters like Salvo or Hannah, but they must fulfill the sometimes-bizarre roles he makes them play. They must respond to challenges most of us would find overwhelming, but he grants them the strength to soldier on, even when the odds seem stacked against them. Moral issues are never easy, but Le Carre keeps them at the forefront of his work. Maintaining that level of intensity would erode a lesser writer, but Le Carre, even after all these years, is clearly equal to the task. [stephen a. haines - Ottawa, Canada]