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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concern about the way clinical trials are conducted in emerging countries; about the off-loading of inappropriate and out-of-date stock; about the way in which, it is thought, drug companies’ willingness to place their product by buying up the local bosses allows corruption to flourish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.

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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