‘It’s time educated men and women had some balls to speak out for truth instead of cringing in the shit-house like a bunch of craven cowards.’ (p.424)
This is a long novel at 560 pages in the paperback edition. It deals with serious social, medical and political issues, and also includes sections of great suspense and tension, but I found it very difficult to read because, like most of le Carré’s later novels, the focus is very much on a handful of terrifically upper-class chaps and chapesses.
The main protagonist is blessed with the ‘good manners and ancient chivalry that were bred in him from his Etonian cradle’ (p.439) – and the relentlessly upper-class patois, speech rhythms and habits of thought evinced by him and almost all the other characters (unless foreigners or servants), almost made me throw the book away more than once. But I’m glad I soldiered on to the end because there are lots of good, and even brilliant, things in it.
Part one – the High Commission
Like most late le Carre’s novels this one starts in media res, in the middle of the plot, and then cunningly interweaves multiple flashbacks and memories to paint in the backstory and build back up to ‘the present’ while also moving the action moving forward, with the result that multiple timeframes interpenetrate each other. This always makes for a satisfyingly complex and interesting reading experience.
The Constant Gardener opens by introducing us to Sandy Woodrow, Head of Chancery at the British High Commission in Nairobi and his gossipy wife Gloria. Sandy has been lusting after Tessa, the young, free-spirited wife of Justin, the Old Etonian British representative on the East African Donors’ Effective Committee (EADEC) at the Commission. But Tessa appears to have been having a long-term affair with a black doctor, Arnold Bluhm, and now – the central event in the novel which triggers everything else – she has been found dead, murdered in a jeep on a trip into the back country along with Bluhm, who is missing, apparently on her way to visit the (real life) Dr Richard Leakey.
In these early pages we realise with a sinking feeling, that we are, once again, among the very posh. All the main characters went to private school:
– When Sandy goes to the hospital to identify Tessa’s body it reminds him of the dormitory at his boarding school, the trestle the corpse is lying on like ‘matron’s ironing board’. Sandy’s father was a British Army General and he reads his two young sons bedtime stories from Biggles (p.144).
– His wife Gloria keeps in touch with her old boarding schools, likes to play act the school prefect, channeling her inner ‘head girl’ (p.472), and her thoughts – which we are given far more of than we could possibly want – are peppered with jolly hockeysticks expressions – Well played, that man! (p.52) Singing at Tessa’s funeral reminds both of them of chapel back at boarding school (p.138). And Justin is not just an Old Etonian, he is ‘the right sort of Etonian’ (p.98). (It is taken for granted that we all know how beastly it can be having to deal with the wrong sort of Etonian.)
– The High Commissioner’s jacket labels still say ‘P. Coleridge, Balliol’, to remind him of his jolly days at Oxford. Bernard Pellegrin, the Permanent Secretary, is always referred to as ‘the Pellegrin’ in that ho-ho public school drawl they all use, but he is always ready to take a chap to lunch at his club.
In other words, all the main characters dress, speak and think in the tones of Britain’s white, public school élite.
Part of their superior attitude is looking down on the lower classes. The impertinent secretary to the High Commissioner, Mildren (with typically mirthless ‘humour’ nicknamed Mildred, ha ha) has, in Sandy’s view, ‘the insolence peculiar to lower class secretaries’ (p.128). The police who arrive to interview Sandy also display tiresome characteristics of the lower classes, such as expecting their questions to be answered. Tut tut, what can one do about such ghastly people, darling?
I laughed out loud when Sandy drifts off during the church service for Tessa and a stained glass depiction of St Andrew reminds him of ‘Macpherson the gillie that time we drove the boys to Loch Awe to fish the salmon’ (p.139). Like the older Richard Hannay in John Buchan’s later novels, le Carré’s very pukka protagonists are only really comfortable with members of the working classes if they are servants or Victorian-style retainers. (Of the peasant fisherman who ferries Justin across the lake at the novel’s end, Justin thinks ‘this fellow was your born family retainer, which was why, to be honest, it was easy to confuse him with Mustafa’, p.564 – to even categorise the wily old peasant as a family retainer seems patronising and narrow-minded, and then to say it’s so easy to muddle up these helpful old black chaps…).
Because of course, here in Africa, each High Commission official has a large house staffed with plenty of servants who they forge sentimental bonds with. Justin in particular is held up as some kind of paragon for his close paternal friendship with his houseboy and his head servant Mustafa et al. The characters pour lofty scorn on their Victorian imperialist ancestors (and everything else) but their patronising self-regard, and their fondness for servants, seems absolutely unchanged since 1870.
Wayward young diplomat’s wife uncovers corporate misdoings in Africa, namely a pharmaceutical company recklessly trialling an experimental drug on Africa’s poorest. Big corporation bumps her off. Husband goes on quest to discover reason for her murder, uncovering conspiracy which includes FO staff and high-ups back in London. Just as he has satisfactorily dotted the i’s and crossed the t’s, he is himself murdered and everything he’s discovered rubbished in a corporate cover-up.
Father a judge, mother a contessa, sent to boarding schools and Cambridge, Tessa Quayle showed her spirit and independence by rebelling against her privileged upper-class background. (I think she is meant to be a great romantic heroine – the stern Lara is made to say Tessa was ‘very beautiful and very tragic’, p.435 – but her breath-takingly privileged background and 100% saintly character made me laugh more than once.) Tessa falls in love with dry-as-dust Justin Quayle, an Old Etonian, who reminds her of her father (natch) and accompanies him as a ‘diplomatic wife’ on his next posting to Nairobi, capital of Kenya.
Here her rebellion takes the form of feeling sorry for the miserably poor Africans around her and angry at the outrageous corruption of Kenya’s ruling class and disgusted by the pusillanimous failure of the British to highlight their failings or hold them to account.
She harangues Sandy for his cowardice while he can only think about her firm young breasts. She has a more respectful relationship with her husband Justin, who lets her go off doing her charity work all day then spend all night tapping feverishly away at her computer, denouncing corruption and wrong-doing. It is understood that he maintains a presence inside the system while she is free to do whatever she wants outside it.
Tessa gets pregnant and insists on showing her solidarity for Africa’s impoverished women by having the baby in a local hospital, where it is promptly stillborn. Such is her commitment that she suckles the baby of a Kenyan mother, Wanzi, so poor and malnourished that she can’t herself produce milk. It is the wasting away, death and disappearance of this mother under the treatment of sinister Europeans in white coats, and then her complete erasure from the hospital records, which sets Tessa suspecting the drug she was being treated with in fact poisoned her, and Tessa’s strong-willed determination to get to the bottom of it which triggers the fateful sequence of events described in the novel. Tessa (and loyal black doctor and aid worker, Arnold Bluhm) become convinced that the mother was maltreated, was given some kind of experimental treatment by the sinister pharmaceutical conglomerate, ThreeBees, who dominate Kenya’s economy and sell everything from petrol to pills.
After burying her stillborn son, Tessa returns from hospital with a new determination to name the guilty men, and so she sends countless letters to various bodies, and tries to personally buttonhole the fat CEO of ThreeBees, Sir Kenneth K. Curtis. (He is a baddy and a symbol of corrupt Westerners bleeding Africa dry, so he is ‘vastly overweight’, p.186.)
Before, during and after the stillbirth she is accompanied everywhere by the legendary Dr Bluhm, godlike African activist, hero of Médecins sans Frontières, who has himself suffered, having been arrested and tortured in Algeria. Their relationship is so close that idle tongues in the ex-pat community (is there any other type) speculate that they are lovers and even that the baby was his.
Part two – a thriller
But around page 250 the novel emerges from the stiflingly posh atmosphere of the High Commission and develops some real pace. The main protagonist is still an Old Etonian with a network of posh friends, his wife is still the daughter of an Italian contessa, but the novel acquires the speed and nerve-racking edginess of a genuine thriller, something le Carré’s previous half dozen novels have (for me, at any rate) mostly lacked.
Justin goes on the run. He is recalled by the Foreign Office to London where he has what is clearly intended as a satirical debriefing from a senior woman in Personnel, who offers counselling, a rest break and other support for the bereaved husband. But Justin has his own plans. He gets his posh lawyer friend, Ham, to validate a fake passport, name of Peter Atkinson. Then he catches a ferry to France, travels incognito down to Italy and across to the island of Elba, where Tessa’s family own several ‘estates’ (handy). Here he greets the loyal old retainer (how nice to have these old retainers to smooth your passage through life) who manages the estate and unpacks. Now he has time and space to go through the haul of Tessa’s files and letters, piecing together the story of her investigations and, in the process, sharing it with the reader, namely:
The experimental drug Dypraxa is effective against multi-drug-resistant (MDR) tuberculosis. The novel claims (with unfounded alarmism) that MDR TB will arrive in the West in the near future and that a handy treatment for it will make its owners a fortune. Dypraxa was discovered and developed by scientists in Canada working for a Swiss drug company, KVH (Karel Vita Hudson). Tessa’s documents identify the two women and man who worked on it. However, as it was rolled out for field trials in the developing world, reports began coming in of severe side effects, including blindness and death. Nonetheless large scale trials went ahead, although at least one of the drug’s inventors protested. KVH licensed the drug for distribution in Africa, and in Kenya, to the multinational, ThreeBees. Tess and Bluhm uncovered a trail of trials whose results have been systematically suppressed, patient deaths removed from the records, entire villages terrified into silence. Kenyan politicians were so corrupt they were happy to take the bribes from ThreeBees and ignore the deaths. KVH and ThreeBees insisted full and proper clinical trials had established the drug’s safety. Tessa and Bluhm had assembled an extremely detailed dossier of evidence and were travelling to northern Kenya to hand it over to Dr Richard Leakey, who they considered the only safe and independent voice in the country who could publicise their findings, when they were ambushed and murdered and all their documents disappeared.
The incorporation of different document types – magazine articles, newspaper reports, scientific papers, emails, letters, scribbled notes – though hardly a new device, gives the narrative a welcome sense of urgency and pace.
Holed up in one of the old buildings on the estate, Justin asks the 12-year-old son of the estate manager, Guido, to hack into Tessa’s computer. But when they open Tessa’s email program something has been sent to it which wipes the computer completely. Spooky.
Posh neighbours turn up unannounced with wine and commiserations, and peer over his shoulder, trying to see what old Justin is up to and old Justin is by now so spooked that he suspects they’ve been sent to spy on him. All good paranoid stuff.
In an interlude back at the High Commission we see Sandy Woodward struggling with his conscience, but not too hard, before delivering a speech to the assembled staff in which he has been ordered to lie for his country, and promote the official ‘line’, namely that the Kenyan police have issued an arrest warrant for Bluhm, who is obviously going to be made the scapegoat for Tessa’s murder, and going on to inform his staff that Justin has gone rogue, disappeared and, suffering from shock, appears to have concocted some cock and bull conspiracy theory. If he contacts anybody at the Commission, they must let him, Sandy, know immediately. Meanwhile part of him is sweating at the lies he knows he’s telling:
Who did this to me? he wondered while he talked. Who made me what I am? England? My father? My schools? My pathetic, terrified mother? Or seventeen years of lying for my country? (p.346)
Throughout the book the Foreign Office is depicted as populated by lickspittles, liars and corrupt politicians. It’s an amazing indictment from a man who once worked for it.
Justin travels incognito to the little town of Bielefeld, near Hanover, in Germany. Here he arranges to meet someone mentioned in Tessa’s correspondence, Birgit, who works for a pharmaceutical-watching charity called Hippo. She tells Justin their charity was burgled a week before – the computer, all disks, and files of correspondence were taken, no money or valuables. More importantly she adds detail to the portrayal of Dypraxa and the scientists involved. First of all she explains the roles of its inventors, Dr Lara Emrich and Dr Kovacs overseen by a man named Markus Lorbeer, an odd character much given to quoting the Bible. Then she explains how big pharma companies bribe and seduce doctors with free trips and goodies, and other techniques of persuasion. But then she adds an important caveat:
Not all doctors can be seduced, not all pharmaceutical companies are careless and greedy. (p.370)
And more words to the effect that pharmaceutical companies contain many good and noble men and women researching the medicines that save all our lives. Maybe passages like this had to be put in at the insistence of lawyers, because the fictional indictment, the imaginative power of the novel, is so monumentally anti-pharma.
Convinced now that every passing car or pedestrian is spying on him, Justin makes it back to the hotel and walks into his room – only to be abruptly assaulted, have a hood slipped over his head, and be badly beaten up. A foreign voice warns him to lay off. His attackers eventually leave, allowing Justin to slowly recover and set about trying to untie his bonds…
A junior member of the High Commission is Ghita Pearson, who Tessa had taken under her wing. Revolted by Sandy Woodward’s lecherous approaches, and then by his blatant lying about Tessa, Bluhm and Justin in the Big Speech he gives the Commission staff, she decides to find out what happened to them for herself. She makes an excuse to fly north to the same place Tessa visited, but under the pretext of having been asked by the WHO to check out a feminist support group. She flies to Lokichoggio, where she finds the aid camp where Tessa and Bluhm stayed. (Here – incidentally – there is lots of detail about what it’s like to be white people running this kind of place, designed to help African women be more independent, and the white women characters she meets, Sarah and Judith, are vividly described.) And Ghita is able to flesh out the Tess and Bluhm’s precise movements in their last days…
Justin just has the energy to stand, clean himself up, catch a cab to the station and a train to Zurich. It reminds him of childhood visits with his parents. He recuperates in a hotel with a trip to a medical clinic to be patched up. Then catches a train to Basel, home of many big pharmaceutical corporations. He struggles across town to the site of the huge gleaming KVH headquarters building.
Throughout this 250-page quest, Justin imagines that Tessa is with him. He jokes with her, shares his discoveries, asks her questions and, when he is dispirited, she spurs him on. His sections of the novel are marinated in her (fictional, hallucinated) presence. This is often very powerful and affecting.
Suddenly he is in Canada, in the town of Saskatchewan. This is one of the research centres of KVH pharmaceuticals (Canadian HQ in Vancouver) and he has come to meet one of the women involved in the original research, the fierce, humourless Dr Lara Emrich who, he discovers, has been hounded out of the university science department for criticising Dypraxa. KVH funds all kinds of research programs at the university, and so her out-spoken criticism a) jeopardises that b) leads quickly to her dismissal.
Emrich had done extensive research on the adverse side-effects of Dypraxa on 600 patients, submitted it to a learned journal where it was rejected, but the (supposedly independent) peer reviewers tipped off KVH and a) her contract was cancelled b) she received threatening notes in the post c) she started being followed. Emrich gives a summary of the situation:
- Dypraxa’s side effects are being concealed in the name of profit
- the world’s poorest communities are being used as guinea pigs by the world’s richest
- legitimate scientific debate is being stifled by threats and intimidation (p.429)
She and Justin are both so paranoid that they arrange to meet at neither her house nor his hotel but at the house of a third party, who turns out to be the fat, straight-talking Amy and her grumpy husband Ralph (p.423). As so often in a le Carré novel, it is this secondary character, a rumpled, foul-mouthed old geezer, who delivers the sweary ‘message’ of the book, that it’s time for all good men to speak out against corporate wickedness (see epigraph at the top of this review).
As they walk to Justin’s car, they see its wheels have been slashed. Two prowling cars approach, then one accelerates and tries to run them over. They jump into the car and drive off, the two flat tyres flumping against the road, just managing to evade the pursuing men long enough to make it to the ambulance station at the hospital. Here Emrich introduces Justin to an old Russian ambulance driver who has a soft spot for her, as a fellow Eastern émigré. This old man agrees to drive them back to Emrich’s house, where they are safe for the night and Justin sleeps.
Donohue and Curtiss
A creepy character who has appeared at the edges of various scenes is the tall, gaunt, childless Tim Donohue who is what the diplomats refer to as one of the ‘Friends’ ie works for British Intelligence. In a central scene we witness the head of ThreeBees, the obese very sweary Sir Kenny Curtiss yelling at Donohue, and the nature of their relationship is laid bare. Donohue of British Intelligence helps ThreeBees. This is made very explicit: Curtiss supplies good intelligence about dodgy arms deals or drug trading or other wrong-doing, and in exchange expects protection and support from the Commission and Donohue. He is, therefore, from his point of view, justified in being furious to discover that the High Commissioner, Porter Coleridge, has gone back to London to in person, to deliver a folder of Tessa’s evidence and demand a parliamentary enquiry into Dypraxa and ThreeBees. This scene would be a lot more plausible if Curtiss hadn’t been made into an obese monster who says ‘fuck’ in every sentence. The CEOs of big pharma companies are slender, well groomed and very clever men, to judge from their pics in the FT.
Leaving Curtiss with his threats to stop helping MI6 ringing in his ears, Donohue encounters his side-kick, Crick, a scary ex-soldier who says he has a friend who has a friend who heard a little something about a contract being put out on Tess and Bluhm. Donohue has a bad feeling that Crick might have been directly involved himself.
Part three – death and cover-up
With a hundred pages still to go the reader has now got a very good sense of the story. Tess and Bluhm were murdered by contract killers hired at a remote distance by ThreeBees and/or KVH because they had created a detailed dossier proving that Dypraxa, although a potentially good drug, was being trialled irresponsibly which was leading to unreported deaths among its African patients. And the generally ominous, tragic atmosphere of the book (when it is not being laughably posh and legendary) strongly suggests that Justin himself will come to no good. Therefore, the book has little sense of the unexpected or of suspense.
In the final hundred pages Justin returns to Kenya under a false passport for the last part of the tragedy.
Dismayingly, this section returns to the point of view of the sweatily lecherous and duplicitous Sandy Woodward as he hosts a gala party organised by his wife, part of his bid to replace the High Commissioner who – as far as he and the staff know – is on an extended trip to London (only we know, because of the previous scene, that he is arguing with the people at the top about the enquiry into ThreeBees and Tessa’s murder.)
Sandy is busy eyeing up Tessa’s young Asian assistant, Ghita, who has returned from her trip up north with information about Bluhm and Tessa’s last movement – when Tessa and Justin’s loyal servant, Mustafa, hands him a note asking him to come to the gate. Here he is hussled into a car containing the well-disguised Justin, who proceeds to make it clear that he knows all about the conspiracy, all about Dypraxa. Devastatingly, he knows that Tessa entrusted a copy of her findings to Sandy to give to someone trustworthy to publicise, but that instead Sandy simply handed them over to his boss, Coleridge. Justin takes Woodward to an empty house and gets him to confess everything, blubbering like the cowardly reptile he is. Above all, he confirms that the evidence Tessa and Bluhm had collected was ‘massive’ – interviews, dates, places, scope of trials, secret documents, and then full documentation of the cover-up, dead bodies disappearing, whole villages intimidated into silence.
These pages confirm the corrupt intertwining between the ThreeBees corporation, British officials in the High Commission, the corrupt Kenyan government and powerful forces back in London. All of them have a vested interest in hushing up the story and thus are, to some extent or other, complicit in Tessa’s murder.
Immediately following this Justin has a final interview with Donohue, who fills in the rest of the picture. At some risk to his own career, Donohue fills in the gaps about the links between Curtiss, Crick and the murderers. But he also emphasises that Curtiss is himself in big financial trouble. The City has got wind of bad news about Dypraxa, ThreeBees shares are falling, Curtiss is in financial meltdown.
In the last act of the novel Justin takes a plane up to the northern outpost from which where Tessa and Bluhm had gone on their ill-fated drive, Lokichoggio, where Ghita had earlier visited. He meets the tubby man Brandt – ‘everyone loves him, everyone knows Brandt’ – who manages the arrival of food aid and its distribution. But Justin confronts him because now he knows that Brandt is also the villainous Lorbeer, who oversaw the development of Dypraxa, who is in cahoots with KVH. In fact, now Justin recognises him as the furtive figure in a white coat who sometimes attended on the dying African mother Wanzi, when Justin was visiting Tessa in the maternity hospital
In a hot sweaty African tent Justin confronts him with all the evidence and Lorbeer collapses in tears, weeping and wailing and calling on God to forgive his sins etc. Along with Ghita’s earlier visit to the Women’s Refuge, this long section gives the reader a good feel for the nitty gritty, for the dusty outhouses and drops of food aid from twin-prop airplanes, for the pride of local tribesmen and the appallingness of the never-ending feuds and tribal wars which underpin African poverty, and for the pressures such aid officials are under. But its main purpose is for the chivalrous Etonian Justin to confront the wicked Germanic baddy. Buried beneath the modern trappings, is the spirit of John Buchan.
In the final sequence Justin flies in the little propellor plane further north and is dropped at a remote outpost, from which he charters a peasant fishing boat to take him across the lake, the only way of getting to the very remote location of Tess and Bluhm’s murder – where Tessa’s car was ambushed, where she was raped and murdered, and the driver killed and Bluhm dragged off into the desert to be tortured and killed.
While sitting there he hears, first the little fishing boat tactfully putting back across the lake, abandoning him – and then the sound of vehicles drawing up. He knows it is the same collection of mercenaries. He hears them scrabbling towards him over the loose sand and rock and knows he is going to die.
In a nifty bit of structuring le Carré has actually described the aftermath of Justin’s death before it happens. He gives a dismaying account of how, following his death, Justin is systematically rubbished by the system, how the press & PR ‘machine’ makes sure a consistent message is broadcast from the High Commission, the Foreign Office back in London and by ThreeBees, carefully co-ordinated to portray Justin as an irresponsible loner, sadly unhinged by the murder of his wife, who had rejected help from the FO, shown signs of mental disturbance, disappeared on a faked passport to visit a number of discredited ex-employees with a grudge, before making a raft of wild and unfounded accusations against ThreeBees etc. Porter Coleridge – who, we are told, tried to present Tessa’s case – is ‘retired’ early. Bernard Pellegrin, the Foreign Office’s Head of Africa, takes early retirement and slips very neatly into a place on the Board of ThreeBees.
A court case is launched using the documents Justin had, throughout his investigation, been posting to a safe house in Italy, where his lawyer friend Ham could access them. But it is quickly silenced by powerful lawyers acting for ThreeBees which will ensure the case drags on forever. Nobody escapes the corporate ‘monstering’, or uncrushed by the courts or discredited by paid-for journalists and corporate spokespersons. Or murdered. Evil wins.
The novel is designed to leave you terrified at the power of Big Pharma, at the scale of the links between big business and government, at the ease with which they can repress the truth.
Issues raised by the novel
1. Third World corruption Nobody reading the novel can be unaware that corruption is endemic throughout the developing world. It comes as no news that some African rulers are corrupt, that a lot of the foreign aid given to Third World countries is siphoned off by corrupt officials, that white ex-pats in Africa live like kings while the majority of Africans around them subsist in squalid shanties and die like flies. And, a little closer to the content of this novel, no surprise that multinational corporations screw profits out of the poorest of the poor, that drug companies have not always behaved charitably in Third World companies, nor that Britain’s embassies and high commissions are stuffed with upper class twits.
2. Neo-imperialism Throughout the book JLC’s white, upper-class characters routinely look back at the folly of their Victorian forebears, with their arrogant assumption that they could run African countries. Yet they just as routinely deplore the corruption and inefficiency of the current regime, reflecting, by implication or overtly, on how much better they would run the damn place. Tessa is on a one-woman mission to save Africa, especially all African women. If only African women could be empowered to run the place, what a better job they’d make of it than the men (a sentiment powerfully echoed by Lorbeer in his isolated aid station).
Doesn’t she realise she is the latest in a long line of do-gooding Imperial wives, from the same kind of lofty background (the contessa mother, boarding school, Cambridge), with the same exuberant idealism and with the same burning conviction that something must be done which, in the end, doesn’t change anything.
3. Big pharma, bad pharma The most controversial aspect of the novel must be the central claim that one or some pharmaceutical companies unscrupulously trial new drugs in developing countries, happy to use poor Africans (who were going to die anyway, as Sir Kenneth Curtiss angrily points out) as guinea pigs to establish safe dosages which will then be used back in the Western world. Could such things happen? I know various scandals about pharma behaviour in Third World countries have been documented, especially around the pricing of life-saving drugs (particularly for AIDS). The second accusation is that these companies, or high-up people associated with them, could have a word with someone who has a word with someone who puts the word out that so-and-so public critics of said company should meet with an unfortunate accident. Could such things happen? No doubt. Have I ever read of such a thing? No, but then I haven’t spent a career following the behaviour of large pharmaceutical companies.
British physician and academic Ben Goldacre has made such a study, resulting in his book Bad Pharma: How Drug Companies Mislead Doctors and Harm Patients. That would be one place to begin an exploration of the subject, and I don’t doubt it’s full of hair-raising stories. But it was published. And he’s still alive.
Unlike in this novel, where the central whistleblowers die horrible deaths.
Issues in the novel
The novel, with its baggy definition as a long piece of prose fiction, can include any amount of fact, history, politics, denunciation and journalism. The question is – or a question is – do these accusations work in the context of this novel? For a young person who is new to these issues I can imagine this book might be a devastating wake-up call. As a grown-up who’s spent thirty years reading about the wickedness of multinational corporations and the hopeless plight of the Third World I don’t think I read anything I hadn’t read before. In fact the one thought which I hadn’t seen expressed so well, is where one of the High Commission officials angrily tells the idealistic Tessa that it is not the job of the Foreign Office to save the world, it is not the job of the High Commission to set itself up as judge and jury over its host government and spend all its time carping and criticising. Their job is to protect the persons of the 30,000 or so British citizens living in Kenya and their business interests. What else would you expect? What else would she expect?
If these issues were new to you, maybe you would be drawn into the sense of horrible dark revelations and the ominous atmosphere the novel is, presumably, setting out to create. But for me:
- I’d heard a lot of the ‘big issues’ before
- in a sense the plot was given away early on – Tessa is dead and I felt we learned that she was bumped off by someone acting in the pharma company’s interests also very early, and so it didn’t come as any surprise that Justin himself ends up being bumped off – it didn’t create the frisson of fear which, I think, was intended
- the style – the upper class cant of most of the characters – kept me repelled, or amused, or distracted so continuously that I never had any real sympathy for them
Is the thriller a suitable vehicle to make serious political points?
No, is the short answer. The thriller genre takes for granted scheming baddies, evil drug dealers or arms dealers, Blofeld or the KGB. The idea that the good guys themselves turn out to be penetrated by corruption and evil goes back at least as far as the 1970s and the outburst of conspiracy thrillers following Watergate, in fact probably back to the Kennedy assassination in the 1960s, maybe to the McCarthyite paranoia of the 1950s, or possibly to John Buchanite concerns about communists and Jews in the government of dear old Blighty. In a thriller, you expect there to be assassins in doorways and mystery cars trying to run over our hero, and all the computers to be hacked, and the government to deny any knowledge of your devastating findings because they’re in fact part of the dreadful conspiracy.
In other words, le Carré is writing his serious indictments of great social evils (the arms trade in The Night Manager, bad pharma here, American hyper-power in Absolute Friends) in a genre which teaches you not to take its grandiose conspiracies seriously; which is based on the idea that you thrill to the scale of some absurd conspiracy (like the computerised plan to invade and conquer Russia in Len Deighton’s Billion Dollar Brain), then put the book down and completely forget about it.
Thoughts about style
As usual, the characters are all legends in each other’s minds, routinely hyped up and overegged by the myth-making narrator. Sandy’s wife, Gloria, is ‘famously loquacious’ (famous to who?), Tessa’s aristocratic mother and sister were ‘fabled beauties’ (p.198), Justin visits ‘that fabled valley of the upper Rhine where pharma-giants have their castles’ (p.412), the repellent Kenny Curtiss turns on ‘the fabled charm’ (p.461), when Donohue refers to Tessa’s killers, he offensively calls them ‘the celebrated Marsabit Two’ (p.510), we read of Foreign Office mandarin Bernard Pellegrin’s ‘fabled skills at networking’ (p.549). And Tessa’s co-conspirator, Bluhm, is not just a doctor, he is:
Bluhm the Westerner’s African, bearded Apollo of the Nairobi cocktail round, charismatic, witty, beautiful. (p.35)
His colleague in an aid camp in the north of the country is ‘Reuben the legendary camp organiser’ (p.392). And so on.
Tessa, who the plot rotates around is – as you are continually reminded – the daughter of a High Court judge and an Italian contessa! She has a ‘teasing, foxing, classy voice’ (p.57). She comes from the same ‘thoroughbred stable’ as her husband, Justin. She isn’t, in other words, any old totty. She is phenomenally posh totty. She is a legend to everyone who’s met her.
God forbid le Carré’s stories should happen to ‘ordinary’ people. His characters come from Britain’s social élite and are gods and legends in their own minds. If you like this exalted atmosphere of privilege and entitlement, if you like characters talking like they are still at Eton and Harrow and Winchester and convinced they are the only people in the world who matter, then you will enjoy this book, old boy.
Sandy Woodward is a middle-aged man with wife and children, but the opening of the novel is drenched in his unrequited leching after Tessa.
I tried not to notice her naked silhouette… trying to wrest the lower half of his gaze from the shadow of her breasts through the puff of her dress… shoulders back, dress stretched across her breasts… her naked silhouette still taunting his memory… (pp.58-63)
She is cradling the child to her left breast, her right breast free and waiting. Her upper body is slender and translucent. Her breasts, even in the aftermath of childbirth, are as light and flawless as he has so often imagined them. (p.83)
Bit of a boob man, old Sandy.
This is before we get on to Justin’s memories of meeting Tessa. How it happened is he was called up at the last minute by a chap in the FO who he knew at Eton, asking if he could deliver a lecture at Cambridge at short notice. Tessa is there, half his age, asks feisty questions, they go for a stroll by the Cam, then a spot of punting, then she takes him back to her little apartment for heady ‘sexual delights’ (p.164). She is sick of boys her own age and looking for a kindly father figure; and he, a confirmed bachelor (although with an impressive track record of affairs, of course) is blown away by her life and enthusiasm. And body. They make a pact that Justin will carry on being Mr Dull and Conventional on the inside of the diplomatic service, giving Tessa a free hand to do her thing.
All the characters say ‘fuck’. The High Commissioner, Head of Chancery, Foreign Office Personnel, Permanent Secretary, the police, all say fuck and shit a lot.
‘You try,’ Amy said. ‘If you don’t try, you’re fucked.’
‘Fucked if you try, fucked if you don’t.’ (p.424)
As far as I can remember this is the first le Carré novel to use the word ‘fart’ (the Permanent Secretary at the FO takes Justin for lunch at his club and explains that the fish makes him fart). The opening words of the first scene in which we finally meet Sir Kenny Curtiss, head of the villainous ThreeBees pharma company, are:
‘What the fuck does your man Quayle think he’s playing at, Tim?’ (p.451)
What made George Smiley a totemic character was his quiet dignity, his restraint, his subtle intelligence. In these later novels all the characters roar:
‘This is Turkana we’re talking about, not fucking Surrey.’ (p.452) ‘I’m Sir fucking Kenneth Curtiss! I have subscribed – last year alone – half a fucking million quid to party funds. I have provided you – British fucking Intelligence – with nuggets of pure gold.’ (p.457)
This loss of self-restraint (either in the characters or by the author) is mirrored by another, which is the eruption of italics throughout the text. For some reason everyone starts emphasising every third or fourth word they say in order to really ram home the importance of what they’re saying. Get it?
‘I’m sure Justin would like me to write to him… I mean I wouldn’t tell him anything that was going to hurt him… I mean Justin knows that Tessa and Arnold were travelling together… Whatever was between them, he’s reconciled to that… There must be something you remember that she did or said… Well, I won’t say she did contribute to that discussion…
In an interview with the Guardian newspaper le Carré spoke about how angry he’s become as he grows older. It’s unfortunate that this wrath and frustration at the wicked world spill over into continual emphasis of almost everything that everybody says.
‘I just don’t see how you could survive like that… Would that be your feeling, basically?… You negotiate with other countries, don’t you? You cut deals with them. You legitimise them through trading partnerships… We really like Bluhm… Bluhm’s as close as you’ll ever get to a good man… With those big fireplaces she always had an eye for soot! And no, Mr Justin, the chimney sweep certainly didn’t have a key… Don’t tell me you’ve abandoned your computer, Guido!… But that’s awful, Guido!… You cover this bit up, then out pops another bit. So you cover that bit up… I am quite sure there was nothing of the kind on either side… What were the side effects?…
The excessive use of italics throughout the text becomes quite wearing quite quickly, but is also indicative of characters – and a narrative – which are increasingly shouting to get your attention.
‘But why did you sign the wretched contract in the first place?’…
‘Because I trusted them. I was a fool.’ (p.426)
If we accept that the main characters are off-puttingly posh and privileged, and that the love triangle at the heart of the novel is described with a lachrymose sentimentality that would make Mills and Boon blush, that the ‘political’ insights about the book are the kind of thing my son learns in school (Africa poor & corrupt, big business bad etc), then the most interesting thing left about the book is its structure.
In a way which reminds me of his major influence, Graham Greene, le Carré is very canny, very clever about the way the narrative of his novels are constructed from multiple timeframes. The ‘present’ of the book is the High Commission as news of Tessa’s murder comes in, followed in forward chronological order by Justin coming to stay with Sandy, both being questioned by the cops, then flying back to London.
From the vantage point of this stretch of ‘present’ narrative, both Justin and Sandy scan back over the past, remembering key moments in their lusting after or marriage to, Tessa. The plot, what happened, is relatively straightforward – but the sophisticated flashback structure allows le Carré to move at will between different key moments, building up their emotional resonance by repetition of scenes or phrases, or to suddenly reveal a previously unsuspected past of the puzzle, taking the reader by surprise with a new twist.
The interview or interrogation is a key location for this kind of timeshift and for a long stretch at the start of this novel, both Sandy and Justin are questioned at length by the two police officers who’ve flown out from London to investigate Tessa’s death. The official interview is such a handy device for an author because it allows him or her to insert long sections of narrative and plot dressed up as reminiscence, memory or just answers to the interviewers’ questions. Thus Justin replies to the cops’ persistent questions about Tessa, but also drifts off into reveries, remembering their meeting and courtship etc. Very handy, very effective.
The way a beautiful, wilful young woman falls into bed with a dowdy old diplomat I found laughably like middle-aged male wish-fulfilment, as I found the revelation that Big Pharma employs dodgy business practices in the Third World tiresomely familiar – but the structure of the narrative, the way moments and scenes from multiple moments in the past are juggled and ordered to create a multi-layered timeframe, I found immensely skillful and rewarding.
If only there was some way to enjoy the structure and pacing of this well-thought out and dramatic story without having to wade through le Carres’ highly mannered and irritating prose, without having to endure the smug self-satisfaction of his intolerably posh characters… How about – making it into a movie?
Released in 2005, the film at a stroke removes the pukka prose style and upper-class twit dialogue (what a relief, darling) to make it acceptable to an audience which was not lucky enough to attend one of England’s top public schools. It converts the long-winded, multi-levelled and circuitous text into a fast-moving action thriller with a heart-stopping soundtrack à la Bourne Identity.
It was directed by Fernando Meirelles and the timid, old bachelor Justin Quayle is transformed by the magic of the movies into the impossibly handsome Ralph Fiennes, while Rachel Weisz perfectly recreates the gorgeous, headstrong heroine, a performance which won her an Oscar for Best Supporting Actress and a Golden Globe award.
My little pony
Rummaging in the dead woman’s room, Sandy finds a photo of Tessa as a ten-year-old riding her first pony (p.69). In his previous two novels key characters have shared memories of their first ponies and gymkhana (Oliver in Single & Single, posh totty Francesca in The Tailor of Panama). I am winning a bet with my son that all le Carré’s later novels will turn out to have a my-first-pony moment.
The Constant Gardener by John le Carré was published in 2001 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes are from the 2005 Coronet paperback edition.
- The Constant Gardener (novel) on Amazon
- The Constant Gardener (novel) Wikipedia article
- The Constant Gardener (movie) on Amazon
- The Constant Gardener (movie) Wikipedia article
- John le Carré Wikipedia article
- John le Carré’s website
- Bad Pharma
John Le Carré’s novels
- Call for the Dead (1961) Introducing George Smiley. Intelligence employee Samuel Fennan is found dead beside a suicide note. With the help of a CID man, Mendel, and the trusty Peter Guillam, Smiley unravels the truth behind his death, namely he was murdered by an East German spy ring, headed by Mundt.
- A Murder of Quality (1962) Smiley investigates the murder of a teacher’s wife at an ancient public school in the West Country, incidentally the seat of the father of his errant wife, Lady Ann. No espionage involved, a straight murder mystery in the style of Morse or a thousand other detective stories.
- The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) Extraordinarily brilliant account of a British agent, Alec Leamas, who pretends to be a defector in order to give disinformation to East German intelligence, told with complete plausibility and precision.
- The Looking Glass War (1965) A peculiar, downbeat and depressing spy story about a Polish émigré soldier who is recruited by a ramshackle part of British intelligence, given incompetent training, useless equipment, and sent over the border into East Germany to his pointless death. Smiley makes peripheral appearances trying to prevent the operation and then clear up the mess.
- A Small Town in Germany (1968) Political intrigue set in Bonn during the rise of a (fictional) right-wing populist movement. Overblown.
- The Naïve and Sentimental Lover (1971)
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974) His most famous book. Smiley meticulously tracks down the Soviet mole at the heart of the ‘Circus’ ie MI6.
- The Honourable Schoolboy (1977) Jerry Westerby is the part-time agent instructed to follow a trail of money from the KGB in Hong Kong, which involves intrigue at various locations in the Far East. It is done on Smiley’s orders but the latter barely appears.
- Smiley’s People (1979) The assassination of a European émigré in Hampstead leads via a convoluted series of encounters, to the defection of Karla, Smiley’s opposite number in the KGB.
- The Little Drummer Girl (1983) A long and brilliant meditation on the Arab-Israeli conflict, embodied by Charlie, the posh young English actress recruited by Israeli intelligence and trained to ‘allow’ herself to then be recruited by Arab terrorists, thus becoming a double agent.
- A Perfect Spy (1986) Long flashback over the career of Magnus Pym, diplomat and spy, which brilliantly describes his boyhood with his chancer father, and the long tortuous route by which he became a traitor.
- The Russia House (1989) Barley Blair is a drunk publisher who a Russian woman approaches at a book fair in Moscow to courier secrets to the West. He is ‘recruited’ and sent back to get more, which is when things begin to go wrong.
- The Secret Pilgrim (1990) A series of vivid short stories describing episodes in the life of ‘old Ned’, a senior British Intelligence officer now in charge of trainees at the Service’s base at Sarratt in Buckinghamshire. When he asks George Smiley to come and lecture the young chaps and chapesses, it prompts a flood of reminiscence about the Cold War, and some references to how abruptly and completely their world has changed with the collapse of Russian communism.
- The Night Manager (1993) Jonathan Pine is recruited by British Intelligence to infiltrate the circle of British arms dealer Richard Onslow Roper – described with characteristic hyperbole as ‘the worst man in the world’ – after first laboriously acquiring a persuasive back story as a crook. Once inside the circle, Pine disobeys orders by (inevitably) falling in love with Roper’s stunning girlfriend, but the whole mission is endangered by dark forces within British Intelligence itself, which turn out to be in cahoots with Roper.
- Our Game (1995) Incredibly posh, retired Intelligence agent, Tim Cranmer, discovers that the agent he ran for decades – Larry Pettifer, who he knew at Winchester public school, then Oxford and personally recruited into the Service – has latterly been conspiring with a former Soviet agent to embezzle the Russian authorities out of tens of millions of pounds, diverting it to buy arms for independence fighters in the tiny republic of Ingushetia, and that Larry has also seduced his girlfriend, Emma, in a claustrophobic and over-written psychodrama about these three expensively-educated but dislikeable upper-class twits. (414 pages)
- The Tailor of Panama (1996) Andrew Osnard, old Etonian conman, flukes a job in British Intelligence and is posted to Panama where he latches onto the half-Jewish owner of a ‘traditional’ English gentlemen’s tailor’s, Harry Pendel, and between them they concoct a fictional network of spies based within an entirely fictional underground revolutionary movement, so they can embezzle the money London sends them to support it. Described as a comedy, the book has a few moments of humour, but is mostly grimly cynical about the corrupt workings of British government, British intelligence, British diplomats and of the super-cynical British media mogul who, it turns out, is behind an elaborate conspiracy to provoke a gruesomely violent American invasion of Panama, leaving you feeling sick and jaundiced at a sick and jaundiced world. (458 pages)
- Single & Single (1999) Public schoolboy Oliver Single joins the law-cum-investment firm of his father, the legendary ‘Tiger’ Single, to discover it is little more than a money-laundering front for international crooks, specifically the Orlov brothers from Georgia. He informs on his father to the authorities and disappears into a witness protection programme. The novel opens several years later with the murder of one of the firm’s senior lawyers by the Russian ‘clients’, which prompts Single & Single to go into meltdown, Tiger to disappear, and Oliver to come out of hiding and embark on a desperate quest to track down his estranged father before he, too, is killed.
- The Constant Gardener (2001) Posh young free-spirited diplomat’s wife Tessa Quayle discovers a big pharmaceutical company is illegally trialling a new drug in Kenya, with disastrous results for the poor patients. She embarks on a furious campaign to expose this wickedness and is murdered by contract killers. The novel combines flashbacks explaining events leading up to her murder, with her husband’s long quest to discover the truth about her death.
- Absolute Friends (2003) Head prefect and champion fast bowler Ted Mundy befriends the radical leader Sasha in the radical Berlin of the late 1960s. Years later he is approached by Sasha, now living in East Germany, who says he wants to spy for the West, and thus begins Ted’s career in espionage, which comes to a grinding halt with the fall of the Berlin Wall. A decade later, Sasha unwittingly lures Ted into a Machiavellian American sting whereby their entire previous careers are turned against them to make them look like dangerous ‘terrorists’ climaxing with them being shot down like dogs.
- The Mission Song (2006)
- A Most Wanted Man (2008)
- Our Kind of Traitor (2010)
- A Delicate Truth (2013)