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The Devil’s Playground

The Constant Gardener

by John le Carré
Scribner, 492 pp., $28.00

On April 19 of this year, in South Africa, thirty-nine drug companies jointly withdrew from a lawsuit aimed at protecting their patents. The suit had been brought by the pharmaceutical giants in response to a law passed in 1997, which allowed the South African health ministry to buy copies of branded drugs; the law gave the go-ahead to local and foreign manufacturers to ignore patents and sell generic copies at a price local markets could bear. The withdrawal of the pharmaceutical companies’ action was a significant moral victory for the South African administration, which governs a population in which deaths from AIDS are said to run at five thousand a week.

The practical results remain to be seen. The 1997 law had not been implemented, and probably never will be. The likely reward for the drug companies will be a say in drawing up a new regulatory framework. When and how the benefits will reach the sick people of South Africa is hard to determine. But the outcome of the case has implications for the whole developing world. In backing off, the companies swallowed the bitter pill of adverse public opinion, and recognized that their position was unsustainable. They cannot, practically or ethically, sell drugs that treat AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis to third-world countries according to the pricing structure they employ to sell drugs for baldness, impotence, and the maladies of affluence. From now on, drug prices will have to be linked in some way to ability to pay; the pharmaceutical companies will have to find a new business model, and gnaw their knuckles over the unwelcome possibility that cheap generic drugs will be trafficked back from the third world to collapse their markets in Europe, North America, and Japan.

No one need shed tears for them. The industry remains highly profitable, and nothing can prevent pharmaceutical companies from switching their research efforts to “lifestyle” drugs for which their promotional arms can help create a demand. And of course, the companies stand accused of worse things than profiteering. There is longstanding concern about the way clinical trials are conducted in emerging countries; about the off-loading of inappropriate and out-of-date stock; about the way in which, it is thought, drug companies’ willingness to place their product by buying up the local bosses allows corruption to flourish both at the ministerial level and on the ground.

In his latest, passionately committed novel—a polemic cast in the form of a thriller—John le Carré adds the charge that the drug companies are involved in the insidious, methodical corruption of scientific opinion. The drug companies buy favors by giving money to universities. Researchers are corrupted and inconvenient conclusions suppressed. Inconvenient scientists are also suppressed—hounded out of their positions and their reputations ruined. The world’s most reputable medical journals give space to papers which are little more than corporate propaganda with a professor’s name at the end. And why does the media not expose these issues? It does, in fact, but not, le Carré seems to say, in a way that makes the first world sit up and take notice. The scientific issues are complicated, individual journalists are bought, and we, sinners that we are, quickly tire of hearing about the problems of regions where life seems to be cheap. There’s nothing for it but to write a novel.

In interviews, le Carré has expressed himself satisfied with his own product. “It was written fast. Once it got going there was very little industrial waste. Very little going back, rewriting.” All the same, there is a problem. Presumably, if le Carré were writing his book now, he would want to take account of the developments in South Africa—if only to point to their limited importance. When the theme of your novel is unfolding in newspaper headlines, you are always going to be running to catch up with yourself. Either the facts will change, or your perception of them will. And by the time the novel went to press, it seems to have been superseded in the author’s mind. In his afterword, he says, “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”

This is le Carré’s eighteenth novel. For most of his literary career his subject has been espionage, and he has approached it with intelligence, seriousness, moral gravity, and a certain melancholy sentimentality. His exploration of an engrossing moral universe of spies and equivocators has now been replaced by a late-in-life discovery that capitalism is not by its nature benevolent, and by an urgent need to communicate the new global realities: multinationals can now boss governments, and the free world that Smiley and the Circus schemed for is not free and not democratic in any real sense; the new masters of the universe cannot be voted out. In an article in Britain’s Sunday Telegraph he explained why he chose the pharmaceutical industry to illustrate his concerns—rather than, say, the tobacco industry or the oil industry: “It had everything: the hopes and dreams we have of it; its vast, partially-realised potential for good; and its pitch-dark underside, sustained by corporate cant, hypocrisy, corruption and greed.”

Pitch-dark” is an interesting choice of phrase. Multinational corporations are what we have at the moment instead of the devil. We used to have Reds under the bed, but we’ve beaten those. We still have aliens, but they are for the uneducated. Le Carré’s subject matter has altered but his mind-set remains, and his vast popularity attests to a flourishing tendency to blame the defects of the world on vast, shadowy conspiracies, complex beyond mortal understanding, generated by individuals who are superhuman in their moral degeneracy and lust for power. In this world view, evil is not the sum of individual weaknesses and derelictions. It is something out there, and beyond us. Its perpetrators, his novel will go on to tell us, are physically ugly people, so ugly that we really ought to spot them coming. Good people, however, tend to be beautiful, and also well-spoken and well-bred. The reason they don’t win the battles is that they worry about their own motivation, their own possible badness; they’re not decisive and ruthless enough. There is another category of people, who can be described as helpless victims. A lot of these live in Africa, where the multinational devils find a playground—and which is hell, more or less, from Cairo to the Cape.

My duty is to Africa,” exclaims his new heroine; but wisely, le Carré has focused the story on just one part of it, Kenya, which he characterizes as a bankrupt and dying nation, every foot of it “falling apart from fraud, incompetence and neglect.” Officials divert aid funding into their own pockets, robbing the poor to pay the rich; the government is violent, ruthless, addicted to torture, hopeless, lawless, “terminally corrupt.” President Moi, one character says, “couldn’t manage a flea circus with the assistance of his entire Cabinet, even if there was money in it for him.” In the diplomatic enclave where the story is set, even the architecture is duplicitous. Electrified fences topped with razor wire protect villas copied from an English suburb, with leaded mock-Tudor panes and “boxed-in iron girders masquerading as oak beams of Merrie England.”

The story begins with the discovery of dead bodies: an English diplomatic wife called Tessa Quayle, and “one headless African, identified as Noah the driver, married with four children.” (Of these, le Carré is interested in the first corpse only; the role of native Kenyans in the novel is to die messily, or bob in and out with trays, like household servants in an English drawing-room comedy.) Tessa is found in the bush near Lake Turkana, the “cradle of mankind,” where the paleontologist Richard Leakey found the earliest hominid bones. The scene has a primal savagery: the abandoned vehicle, the gory corpses. Tessa’s traveling companion, a black doctor called Arnold Bluhm, has vanished from the scene: with blood on his hands perhaps? Sandy Woodrow, Head of Chancery at the British High Commission in Nairobi, is the first in Nairobi to hear the news. He knows immediately that his quiet life is over.

Sandy plays a curious role in the book. He seems to be a character with whom le Carré is at home, a man aware of his emotional insufficiency, the inadequacy of his “divided English heart.” The set-up suggests he will play the male lead, especially since he has fallen in love with Tessa; and his wife is characterized with a thorough-going malice which indicates that she is going to be important too. But Sandy is quickly downgraded; three hundred pages in, le Carré has decided to despise him, and his wife has become a cipher. Through the book there are disconcerting changes of tack; when le Carré changes his mind, he doesn’t go back to restructure his narrative. The real male lead is Justin Quayle, the “constant gardener” of the title, a mild, rather dandyish man distinguished by his harmless horticultural hobby. Sandy regards him as “a first-rate, meat-and-potatoes professional diplomat—bags of field experience, two or three languages, safe pair of hands….” From a moneyed background, Justin looks upon the Foreign Office as his “family firm.” He is the kind of man whom one would pick out as destined for a middle-ranking career, nothing exciting but nothing demeaning either: quizzical, detached, rather passive. But the even tenor of his way has been interrupted by his marriage to the delectable Tessa, twenty years his junior, “too perfect, too young.”

It is she who is the center of the novel, and so it is unfortunate that when the action opens she is dead, because it means the story line has to backtrack constantly. There is a ponderous section where le Carré describes how Tessa and Justin met (in Oxford: she beguiled him in a punt). Justin is a veteran of unresolved romantic entanglements, but he feels a strong attraction to her and is “helpless in its spell.” Tessa is also from a privileged background but, for added pathos and plot value, she is an orphan; Justin becomes both husband and father, and there will be no one else to protect her good name or avenge her death. She is a contradictory character, and the contradictions are not fertile. Le Carré likes to tell readers what to think of his characters, rather than shaping the narrative so that they can demonstrate it themselves. Tess is a free spirit, “young enough to believe there is such a thing as simple truth”—which is usually a characteristic of rather simple people; there is not much sign of the “lawyer’s intellect” and “icy pragmatism” that is claimed for her. As a love object Tessa is tiresome, given to flitting against the light in filmy dresses while Justin and the author salivate over her.

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