Read an Excerpt
The Mission Song A Novel
By John le Carré
LITTLE, BROWN Copyright © 2006 David Cornwell
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-316-01674-8
My name is Bruno Salvador. My friends call me Salvo, so do my enemies. Contrary to what anybody may tell you, I am a citizen in good standing of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, and by profession a top interpreter of Swahili and the lesser-known but widely spoken languages of the Eastern Congo, formerly under Belgian rule, hence my mastery of French, a further arrow in my professional quiver. I am a familiar face around the London law courts both civil and criminal, and in regular demand at conferences on Third World matters, see my glowing references from many of our nation's finest corporate names. Due to my special skills I have also been called upon to do my patriotic duty on a confidential basis by a government department whose existence is routinely denied. I have never been in trouble, I pay my taxes regularly, have a healthy credit rating and am the owner of a well-conducted bank account. Those are cast-iron facts that no amount of bureaucratic manipulation can alter, however hard they try.
In six years of honest labour in the world of commerce I have applied my services - be it by way of cautiously phrased conference calls or discreet meetings in neutral cities on the European continent - to the creative adjustment of oil,gold, diamond, mineral and other commodity prices, not to mention the diversion of many millions of dollars from the prying eyes of the world's shareholders into slush funds as far removed as Panama, Budapest and Singapore. Ask me whether, in facilitating these transactions, I felt obliged to consult my conscience and you will receive the emphatic answer, 'No.' The code of your top interpreter is sacrosanct. He is not hired to indulge his scruples. He is pledged to his employer in the same manner as a soldier is pledged to the flag. In deference to the world's unfortunates, however, it is also my practice to make myself available on a pro bono basis to London hospitals, prisons and the immigration authorities despite the fact that the remuneration in such cases is peanuts.
I am on the voters' list at number 17, Norfolk Mansions, Prince of Wales Drive, Battersea, South London, a desirable freehold property of which I am the minority co-owner together with my legal wife Penelope - never call her Penny - an upper-echelon Oxbridge journalist four years my senior and, at the age of thirty-two, a rising star in the firmament of a mass-market British tabloid capable of swaying millions. Penelope's father is the senior partner of a blue-chip City law firm and her mother a major force in her local Conservative Party. We married five years ago on the strength of a mutual physical attraction, plus the understanding that she would get pregnant as soon as her career permitted, owing to my desire to create a stable nuclear family complete with mother along conventional British lines. The convenient moment has not, however, presented itself, due to her rapid rise within the paper and other factors.
Our union was not in all regards orthodox. Penelope was the elder daughter of an all-white Surrey family in high professional standing, while Bruno Salvador, alias Salvo, was the natural son of a bog Irish Roman Catholic missionary and a Congolese village woman whose name has vanished for ever in the ravages of war and time. I was born, to be precise, behind the locked doors of a Carmelite convent in the town of Kisangani, or Stanleyville as was, being delivered by nuns who had vowed to keep their mouths shut, which to anybody but me sounds funny, surreal or plain invented. But to me it's a biological reality, as it would be for you if at the age of ten you had sat at your saintly father's bedside in a Mission house in the lush green highlands of South Kivu in the Eastern Congo, listening to him sobbing his heart out half in Norman French and half in Ulsterman's English, with the equatorial rain pounding like elephant feet on the green tin roof and the tears pouring down his fever-hollowed cheeks so fast you'd think the whole of Nature had come indoors to join the fun. Ask a Westerner where Kivu is, he will shake his head in ignorance and smile. Ask an African and he will tell you, 'Paradise,' for such it is: a Central African land of misted lakes and volcanic mountains, emerald pastureland, luscious fruit groves and similar.
In his seventieth and last year of life my father's principal worry was whether he had enslaved more souls than he had liberated. The Vatican's African missionaries, according to him, were caught in a perpetual cleft stick between what they owed to life and what they owed to Rome, and I was part of what he owed to life, however much his spiritual Brothers might resent me. We buried him in the Swahili language, which was what he'd asked for, but when it fell to me to read 'The Lord is my Shepherd' at his graveside, I gave him my very own rendering in Shi, his favourite among all the languages of the Eastern Congo for its vigour and flexibility.
Illegitimate sons-in-law of mixed race do not merge naturally into the social fabric of wealthy Surrey, and Penelope's parents were no exception to this time-honoured truism. In a favourable light, I used to tell myself when I was growing up, I look more suntanned Irish than mid-brown Afro, plus my hair is straight not crinkly, which goes a long way if you're assimilating. But that never fooled Penelope's mother or her fellow wives at the golf club, her worst nightmare being that her daughter would produce an all-black grandchild on her watch, which may have accounted for Penelope's reluctance to put matters to the test, although in retrospect I am not totally convinced of this, part of her motive in marrying me being to shock her mother and upstage her younger sister.
A word here regarding my dear late father's life struggle will not be deemed out of place. His entry into the world, he confided to me, had been no smoother than my own. Born in 1917 to a corporal in the Royal Ulster Fusiliers and a fourteen-year-old Normandy peasant girl who happened to be passing at the time, he spent his childhood on the shunt between a hovel in the Sperrin Mountains and another in northern France, until by dint of study plus his inherited bilinguality he clawed himself a place in a Junior Seminary in the wilds of County Donegal and thus set his young feet unthinkingly on the path to God.
Sent to France for the greater refinement of his faith, he endured without complaint interminable years of gruelling instruction in Catholic theology, but as soon as the Second World War broke out he grabbed the nearest bicycle, which with Irish wit he assured me was the property of a godless Protestant, and pedalled hell for leather across the Pyrenees to Lisbon. Stowing away on a tramper bound for Leopoldville as was, he evaded the attentions of a colonial government ill disposed towards stray white missionaries, and attached himself to a remote community of friars dedicated to bringing the One True Faith to the two hundred-odd tribes of the Eastern Congo, an ambitious commitment at any time. Those who now and then have accused me of impulsiveness need look no further than my dear late father on his heretic's pushbike.
Aided by native converts whose tongues the natural linguist swiftly made his own, he baked bricks and limed them with red mud trodden by his own feet, dug ditches in the hillside and installed latrines amid the banana groves. Next came the building: first the church, then the school with its twin bell tower, then the Mother Mary Clinic, then the fish-ponds and fruit and vegetable plantations to supply them, such being his true vocation as a peasant in a region lavishly endowed with Nature's riches whether you are talking cassava, papaya, maize, soya beans, quinine, or Kivu's wild strawberries which are the best in the world bar none. After all this came the Mission house itself, and behind the Mission house a low brick hostel with small windows high up for Mission servants.
In God's name he trekked hundreds of kilometres to remote patelins and mining settlements, never failing when opportunity arose to add another language to his ever-growing collection until a day when he returned to his Mission to find his fellow priests fled, the cows, goats and chickens stolen, the school and Mission house razed, the hospital pillaged, its nurses hamstrung, raped and slaughtered, and himself a prisoner of the last rag-tag elements of the fearsome Simba, a murderous rabble of misguided revolutionists whose sole aim, until their official extinction a few years previously, had been to visit death and mayhem on all perceived agents of colonisation, which could be anyone nominated by themselves, or by the guiding spirits of their long-deceased warrior ancestors.
As a general principle, it is true, the Simba stopped short of harming white priests, fearing that by doing so they would break the dawa that rendered themselves immune to flying bullets. In the case of my dear late father, however, his captors were quick to set aside their reservations, arguing that since he spoke their language as well as they did, he was plainly a black devil in disguise. Of his fortitude in captivity many inspiring anecdotes were later told. Whipped repeatedly in order to expose the true colour of his devil's skin, tortured and forced to witness the torturing of others, he proclaimed the Gospel and begged God's forgiveness for his tormentors. Whenever able, he went among his fellow prisoners, administering the Sacrament. Yet not the Holy Church in all its wisdom could have been prepared for the cumulative effect on him of these privations. Mortification of the flesh, we are taught, furthers the triumph of the spirit. Such however was not the case for my dear late father, who within months of his release had demonstrated the flaw in this convenient theory, and not merely with my dear late mother:
If there is divine purpose to your conception, son, he confided to me on his deathbed, resorting to his lovely Irish brogue lest his fellow priests should overhear him through the floorboards, it is to be found in that stinking prison hut and at the whipping post. The thought that I might die without knowing the consolation of a woman's body was the one torture I could not bear.
Her reward for producing me was as cruel as it was unjust. At my father's urging she set off for her home village with the intention of giving birth to me among her clan and tribe. But these were turbulent times for the Congo or, as General Mobutu insisted it be known, Zaire. In the name of Authenticity, foreign priests had been expelled for the crime of baptising babies with Western names, schools had been forbidden to teach the life of Jesus, and Christmas declared a normal working day. It was therefore not surprising that the elders of my mother's village baulked at the prospect of nurturing a white missionary's love-child whose presence among them could invite instant retribution, and accordingly sent the problem back to where it came from.
But the Mission Fathers were as reluctant as the village elders to receive us, referring my mother instead to a distant convent where she arrived with only hours to spare before my birth. Three months of tough love at the hands of the Carmelites were more than enough for her. Reasoning that they were better placed than she to provide me with a future, she consigned me to their mercy and, escaping at dead of night by way of the bath-house roof, crept back to her kin and family, who weeks afterwards were massacred in their entirety by an aberrant tribe, right down to my last grandparent, uncle, cousin, distant aunt and half- brother or sister.
A village headman's daughter, son, my father whispered through his tears, when I pressed him for details that might assist me in forming a mental picture of her to sustain me in my later years. I had taken shelter under his roof. She cooked our food and brought me the water to wash with. It was the generosity of her that overwhelmed me. He had eschewed the pulpit by then, and had no appetite for verbal pyrotechnics. Nevertheless the memory rekindled the Irishman's smouldering rhetorical fires: As tall as you'll be one day, son! As beautiful as all creation! How in God's name can they tell me you were born in sin? You were born in love, my son! There is no sin but hate!
The retribution meted out to my father by the Holy Church was less draconian than my mother's, but severe. One year in a Jesuit rehab penitentiary outside Madrid, two more as a worker-priest in a Marseilles slum, and only then back to the Congo he so unwisely loved. And how he swung it I don't know, and probably God doesn't either, but somewhere along his stony path he persuaded the Catholic orphanage that had custody of me to give me up to him. Thereafter the half-caste bastard who was Salvo trailed after him in the care of servants chosen for their age and ugliness, first in the guise of offspring of a deceased uncle, later as acolyte and server, until that fateful night of my tenth birthday when, conscious as much of his mortality as my ripening, he poured out his very human heart to me as described above, which I regarded, and still do, as the greatest compliment a father can pay to his accidental son.
The years following my dear late father's death did not pass smoothly for the orphaned Salvo, owing to the fact that the white missionaries viewed my continued presence among them as a festering affront, hence my Swahili nickname of mtoto wa siri or secret child. Africans maintain that we derive our spirit from our father and our blood from our mother, and that was my problem in a nutshell. Had my dear late father been black, I might have been tolerated as excess baggage. But he was white through and through, whatever the Simba might have thought, and Irish with it, and white missionaries, it is well known, do not engender babies on the side. The secret child might serve at priests' table and the altar, and attend their schools but, come the approach of an ecclesiastical dignitary of whatever colour, he was whisked to the Mission workers' hostel to be hidden until the threat blew over, which is neither to disparage the Brethren for their high-mindedness, nor to blame them for the occasionally excessive warmth of their regard. Unlike my dear late father, they had restricted themselves to their own gender when addressing their carnality: as witness Père André our great Mission orator who lavished more attention on me than I could comfortably accommodate, or Père François, who liked to think of André as his chosen friend and took umbrage at this flowering of affection. In our Mission school, meanwhile, I enjoyed neither the deference shown to our smattering of white children nor the comradeship owed me by my native peers. Little wonder then if I gravitated naturally towards the Mission servants' low brick hostel which, unbeknown to the Fathers, was the true hub of our community, the natural sanctuary for any passing traveller, and the trading point of oral information for miles around.
And it was there, curled up unnoticed on a wood pallet beside the brick chimney-breast, that I listened spellbound to the tales of itinerant huntsmen, witch doctors, spell-sellers, warriors and elders, scarcely venturing a word of my own for fear of being packed off to bed. It was there also that my ever- growing love of the Eastern Congo's many languages and dialects took root. Hoarding them as my dear late father's precious legacy, I covertly polished and refined them, storing them in my head as protection from I knew not what perils, pestering native and missionary alike for a nugget of vernacular or turn of phrase. In the privacy of my tiny cell I composed my own childish dictionaries by candlelight. Soon, these magic puzzle-pieces became my identity and refuge, the private sphere that nobody could take away from me and only the few enter.
And I have often wondered, as I wonder now, what course the secret child's life might have taken, had I been permitted to continue along this solitary and ambivalent path: and whether the pull of my mother's blood might have turned out to be stronger than my father's spirit. The question remains academic, however, since my dear late father's former brethren were energetically conspiring to be rid of me. My accusing skin colour, my versatility in languages, my cocky Irish manner and worst of all the good looks that, according to the Mission servants, I owed to my mother, were a daily reminder of his erring ways.
Excerpted from The Mission Song by John le Carré Copyright © 2006 by David Cornwell. Excerpted by permission.
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