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The Devil’s Playground

Having gone out to Kenya as a docile diplomatic wife, Tessa becomes involved in “tending the sick and dying”—that inveterate amateur pursuit for which Africa offers so much opportunity. She has also been researching the activities of a company called Three Bees, which acts as the distributor for Dypraxa, a new drug to combat tuberculosis. In the course of her inquiries she has found “true excrement of the foulest sort” concerning the drug, and compiled a dossier on it, which she has handed to her husband’s superiors back in Whitehall—and thus made herself deeply unpopular with them.

Anyone who has had contact with British diplomats abroad knows that they never wittingly do anything to injure trading relations with the host country, trade being sacred and principles dispensable. Why does Tessa not know this? We are told she is unconventional and fiery, but Sandy Woodrow tells Justin, “She was a British diplomatic wife and she was determined to do things the British diplomatic way…. She clung to a pathetic notion that the Brits had more integrityvirtue in government—than any other nation. Something her father drummed into her, apparently.” Tessa, though the daughter of an Italian noblewoman, is a self-confessed “tramp, a tart with a heart and a bit of a little devil,” and it is with these attributes that she enthralls Justin as he potters in his flower garden; but after her death, they expose her character to defamation.

Tessa’s projects have involved her with Arnold Bluhm, “a perfect man,” a doctor and a crusader for human rights. Bluhm is handsome, suave, clever, affable: “To the impressionable, he’s an African folk hero.” Many people, including the diplomatic community, believe that Bluhm is Tessa’s lover. But Justin does not believe it himself, nor does he believe the story that immediately becomes current about Tessa’s death; the official version is that Bluhm had quarreled with her, gone berserk, murdered her, and butchered the driver to be rid of the witness. The reader is coaxed into the certainty that the killers are the dastardly corporate villains whose activities she was beginning to expose.

In the course of the plot Justin himself must be brought to share this certainty. He has always been ambivalent about his wife’s research, possibly because he does not concentrate when she makes her case; when Justin and Tessa are locked in debate about the diplomat’s moral responsibility, he is “trying to wrest the lower half of his gaze from the shadow of her breasts through the puff of dress.” But he has, too, a temperamental problem, a philosophical problem: he is a “master of lofty nihilism,” which means he doesn’t believe there is much to be done about the state of the world and doesn’t care to exert himself to do it. “It was therefore doubly unfortunate that Justin, who regarded any form of idealism with the deepest skepticism, should have involved himself with a young woman who, though delightfully uninhibited in many ways, was unable to cross the road without first taking a moral view.”

It is that “delightfully uninhibited,” the elderly coyness of it, that makes the reader’s toes curl; yet le Carré’s study of a complaisant man forced into action is sympathetic and convincing in itself. Justin feels he has failed his young wife: “By letting her go it alone. By emigrating from her in my mind. By making an immoral contract with her. One that I should never have allowed. And nor should she.” The difficulty le Carré has created for himself is to sustain this sympathy when the narrative line is so tortuous. Justin has to ask himself what Tessa has discovered that is so dangerous, and the narrative has to loop around to explain how Tessa found out about the drug Dypraxa. We are asked to believe that, expecting her first child, Tessa decided to give birth in the public ward of an African hospital. (Expatriates don’t do this, for the same reason that aid workers in a famine area don’t, out of fellow-feeling, put themselves on starvation rations.) In a nearby bed lay a sad young woman, Wanza: not just some common or garden-variety African innocent, but a poor fugitive, pregnant after a rape by her uncle; le Carré can be relied on to overegg the pudding. Tessa loses her baby, and while she lies in exhausted sleep Wanza disappears. Tessa is told that she has died and that her baby has been taken back to her home village. She does not see the body, and there is no post-mortem report or death certificate.

It appears that Wanza is one of the victims of the testing of the new drug—which is a drug with good potential, but not yet safe for release. Its manufacturers believe it is going to be an immensely profitable formulation, because they predict an explosion of tuberculosis in the West—so they want to get it tested in Africa first. The company known as Three Bees has agreed to take up a quarter of the research and development costs in return for all-Africa sale and distribution rights. While Tessa is in the hospital, she spots a “phony doctor” and tries to alert her husband. “Plump. Unkempt. I have a memory of suede shoes,” recalls Justin. “His coat was grimy from nothing very particular. Suede shoes, a grimy coat, a red face. A showman of some kind…an impresario.” Three golden bees are sewn on his jacket pocket; this is a sinister creature called Lorbeer, a drug company operative and a serial Judas who haunts the narrative. Though he occupies a lot of space, neither his function nor his character cohere. A hovering, buzzing impression of corruption hangs over the page whenever he appears. Lorbeer’s mind-set is puzzling and the more le Carré explains it the less one understands it. It seems that because of his “German Lutheran, very Calvinistic” forebears he is predetermined to do wrong and then confess it in melodramatic fashion for the reader’s enlightenment—without, however, mending his ways.

Behind Lorbeer smirks the sleazy international businessman known as Kenny K, president of Three Bees. “His mane of dyed black hair was swept back Slav-style from his wide forehead and duck’s-arsed at the nape. He was smoking a cigar and frowning each time he drew on it. When the cigar bored him, he would leave it smoldering on whatever priceless piece of furniture came to hand.” He is also an arms dealer; a props-cupboard megalomaniac, he talks about himself in the third person. Yet even Kenny is only a pawn in a larger game. The originators of the drug are a conglomerate called Karel Vita Hudson, a giant Swiss-Canadian company, which has a bad record as a polluter in North America and India, but has so far bought its way out of trouble. KVH and its associate companies are overlords of “Vancouver, Seattle, Basel plus every city you’ve heard of from Oshkosh to East Pinner.” Justin is taking on the armed might of major opponents: the little man is about to venture out against the world.

Great pressure is put on him by his Foreign Office masters to go along with the official version—that Tessa was murdered by Bluhm. Two acerbic young police officers, one male and one female, visit Justin in Nairobi. The young man, who is of a fantastic hostility and ignorance, surprisingly quotes Macbeth at him. Though thuggish, these officers are clearly sincere. But then they are taken off the case—mysteriously, it is suggested; it is a relief to the reader, since their characters were so ramshackle that they were a distraction from the run of the narrative. Justin has to appeal for information to Ghita, Tessa’s disciple and “the second most beautiful woman in Nairobi.”

Tessa was in the habit of communicating by e-mail and storing her research findings on disk. Le Carré is clearly excited by the plot twists the new technology offers: “Wow, Ghita, maybe you’ve picked up one of those crazy viruses from the Philippines or wherever those cyberfreaks hang out!” Later, when Justin travels to Elba in his efforts to vindicate Tessa, he meets up with a crippled young boy called Guido, who is in mourning for Tessa and her many good deeds: “Did the signora bring us from Albania,” Guido’s mother asks, “buy him his treatment in Milan, put us in this house, just so that we should die of grief for her?”

And of course she is not meant to die of grief: she is meant to appear on the page, recite a large chunk of back story, and vanish again. Guido, handily, is a prodigy on the computer keyboard, and able to lead Justin through the fog of his ignorance. The whole plot diversion is meaningless; by page 200, if we are not convinced that Tessa was an angel of mercy, no multiplication of examples is going to sway us, and though the disabled child is meant to warm our hearts, all we can see is a perspiring author raking the embers of a plot whose fire is burning low.

The novel is most sure in tone when Justin returns to London to see his masters, who want him to straighten out his affairs and consider his future. There is a glimpse of him leaving the airport for the city, trapped in traffic, “staring in perplexity at the foreign country he had represented half his life.” There are chilling scenes of civil service bureaucracy in action, dealing with the bereaved man’s practical affairs: “I seem to have a memo here from the pay people…. We’re keeping you on full pay of course. Married allowances, I’m afraid, discontinued, effective from the day you became single.”

The Foreign Office is inclined to believe that Justin must know something of his wife’s discoveries. He is invited to “bring everything you’ve got into the Office.” And everything belongs to the Office—even the contents of his head. When Justin dips from view, he’s “hit the conspiracy trail,” according to his diplomatic masters. In their panic at what damage this loose cannon might do, they are keen to pass him off as deranged, traumatized, paranoid. Justin, painfully retracing his wife’s steps, is rewarded only by “a dawning sense of his own completion.” “Justin…was alone with his destiny. But he was resolved. And in some dark sense purified.” He has taken on Tessa’s fight, with slender hopes of a good outcome. We understand from the first that the opponents are too shadowy, monolithic, and oppressive for a simple, personal act of vengeance to settle the score, or for a simple piece of truth-telling to disperse the darkness that has gathered around her corpse.

In the author’s note that closes the book, le Carré issues the usual disclaimers, separating his characters from real people and the events of his plot from events in the real world. The disclaimers are required by his publisher, he says, and “happen to be perfectly true”; but it is evident that his heart is not in them. He uses the afterword to punch his message home—as if he is afraid his fiction has not succeeded. He acknowledges the help of those who cannot allow themselves to be named. He hints at further horrors:

As I write, news is coming in of the death of John Kaiser, an American priest from Minnesota who worked in Kenya for the last thirty-six years. His body was found in Naivasha, fifty miles northwest of Nairobi. It had a bullet wound to the head. A shotgun was found close by. Mr. Kaiser was a longtime outspoken critic of the Kenyan government’s human rights policies, or lack of them. Accidents like that can happen again.

Perhaps this is what he should have been writing about. Through the course of the book he has seemed indecisive about what he should put in, what should stay out, what he must only mention and what he can weave into plot. For example, the shadow of the scientist Richard Leakey, until recently a member of the Kenyan administration, hovers over the story but never alights. Le Carré has to be careful of the libel laws; but he has to be careful, as he must know, not to strain the reader’s patience too far. There is a limit to how far the narrative can twist and turn without fracturing, and le Carré’s style is not a flexible instrument.

Reader and writer are brought up time after time against the limitations of the polemical novel. If you choose to deal with such complicated and sensitive topics in the form of fiction, you are creating great difficulties for yourself, given that dramatic tension and the recitation of facts are often incompatible, and the use of characters as the equivalent of newscasters tends to bore and weary the reader. You have to be very clear about what you stand to gain from writing fiction, rather than reportage. Perhaps you have been able to strip away the subject to its essential oppositions, to its tensions and pulls; to strip out the ephemeral, the better to analyze it. Perhaps you have been able to expose its mythic level, to show that this new tale is in fact an old and enduring tale. But this is unlikely to be the case when your fiction is pegged to news stories that are still breaking.

To be worthwhile, your novel must be good enough to carry the polemic, and good enough to survive it. Le Carré runs the risk of making his reader feel that coarse thinking underlies his coarse technique. His characters here are mostly puppets, who respond mechanically to the circumstances he contrives for them, and the novel is not so much plot-driven as event-driven; his technique is to multiply complications, but not increase complexity. All the plot twists and diversions occur on one level, and when they are cut through, he simply leaves them behind, so that large sections could be excised from the book without much consequence for the whole.

To criticize the novel isn’t to deny its seriousness of purpose. It’s because it is serious that it needed to be better. Content gains authority from the manner in which it’s handled. Le Carré made his name in a genre—the spy novel—which blatantly flatters the reader’s intelligence, while covering its author’s tracks. If the reader doesn’t follow a certain development, he secretly thinks he’s at fault, not the author; if he does grasp the twists and turns of the plot he congratulates himself, no matter whether those convolutions form part of a meaningful pattern; no matter whether it proves, at the end of the novel, that most of the detours and by-ways end short of the destination. Perhaps, though, what his millions of readers find to admire in le Carré’s novels is not plot or pace, not the craftsmanlike attributes that are often spoken of but are, on close inspection, hard to find. Perhaps what they relish is the distinctive, piquant tone of le Carré’s work: the nagging suggestion that not all will be revealed, the promise the narrative tantalizingly fails to fulfill, the characters’ refusal to stand still in the light. Obscurity has its uses, and murky water can be taken to be deep. We are all men of the world, the spy books tell us, endlessly tolerant of ambivalence, without illusions, and all the better for it; writer, readers, and characters are warily intimate, loosely bonded by a common disdain for the world, drawn together in the freemasonry of the nod and the wink.

But The Constant Gardener is not built on hints and whispers. It is a furious, hasty, at times embarrassing book, thrown onto the page by a writer waking up to the consequences of what is done in the name of the Western democracies he has until recently championed. The puzzle of his political position, and his own career as a spy, was at least partly resolved in a 1999 article in The New Yorker, written by Timothy Garton Ash, who had talked to le Carré in depth about his career and beliefs. His intelligence career, it seems, was not a short-lived affair, but lasted sixteen years. As a student at Oxford he reported on his fellow students to MI5, the internal security service, and later, as consul in Hamburg and as a secretary at the Bonn embassy, he served the external intelligence agency, MI6.

In that same article he talked about his father, a charming crook of volatile fortunes and temperament, whom he still tries and fails to understand; of his fractured family life and his private school, where he was made to feel déclassé. He has expressed his distaste for the British establishment, citing the House of Lords, the Established Church, and the private school system as symptoms of its malaise; he says, “I want radical change in British society.” But these institutions have been for many years the targets of the old left; if you believe that taking up cudgels against some elderly schoolmasters and bishops makes you a radical, then you have a very wan notion of what radicalism comprehends. These are the evils of le Carré’s youth, and he speaks and writes as if he has only recently raised his eyes to new evils on the horizon. His world solution was proferred in his Sunday Telegraph article:

Perhaps we do indeed need a great new movement, an international, humanitarian movement of decent men and women, that is not doctrinal, not political, not polemical, but gathers up the best in all of us: a Seattle demo without the broken glass.

No broken glass, no broken heads, and no litter left behind on the grass: it is the moral vision of a Sunday school teacher. He probably knows it won’t do; knows that his territory is not that of the “decent” people with their four-square rectitude and unexamined instincts, but that of the outsider, stained by duplicity. At university he spied on his friends, joining left-wing groups in order to feed back information that would protect the “free society.” From where he stands now, it doesn’t look so free. But the secret world is a hard place to leave. Secrecy is self-perpetuating and perhaps doubleness is a psychic necessity for old spies. When the world changes they are unable to recreate their preduplicitous selves, to emerge into singleness, just as all of us are unable to recreate a child’s freshness of perception. Once you have been a spy you are always potentially a spy. No one should trust you and you should not trust yourself. Perhaps it is this knowledge that lies at the heart of John le Carré’s moral anxiety. The Constant Gardener, strident, repetitious, and urgent, is less a novel than a cry from the heart, and one which sounds loudest in the author’s own ears: now I mean what I say, and this time I am telling you the truth.

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