The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett (1997)

Everything since independence has been a sick joke. (p.206)

The Catastrophist slowly builds into a gripping novel on the strength of Bennett’s powerful evocation of its historical setting, the Belgian Congo in the fraught months leading up to and following its independence on 30 June 1960, and in particular what David van Reybrouck calls the Shakespearian tragedy surrounding the murder of its first elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, in January 1961.

However, front and centre of the novel is the story of the narrator’s doomed love affair with a passionately political woman 13 years his junior which gives rise to numerous passages of purple prose and florid digressions on the nature of love which I found almost impossible to read.

Let’s deal with some of the negatives first, before getting onto the muscular strength of the positives.

A novel about a novelist

There are a number of reasons to dislike this novel. For a start it’s a novel told in the first person about a novelist who’s struggling to write a novel (p.12) and spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about the special problems of being a writer, about being so concerned about finding the right words that he is too self conscious to really live, to give himself to the world, to commit… and so on and so on – a subject so hackneyed and tiresome that several times I nearly gave up reading the book.

My third eye, my writer’s eye, monitors every word and gesture. It makes me fearful of my own censure. I can only hold back. (p.108)

Because he is so obsessed with his status and role as a ‘writer’ he feels like an ‘outsider’, like a permanently alienated observer of everything going on around him, and makes sure we know it by continually repeating the fact:

  • I am surrounded – always – by my own distance. (p.10)
  • I am the trained observer…
  • I am not truly part of this…
  • I move away to stand alone, apart, removed from the people…
  • …my ever-evasive presence…
  • [I am] the habitual onlooker… (p.49)
  • I have spent too much time in the cheerless solitude of my own ego.
  • Is this all I have ever been? A selfish, egotistical watcher? (p.268)

It feels like a very lived-in, worn-out, stereotyped character and attitude for a writer, for a fiction.

And my words, what worth have they? From my youth I have lived with disguises and…I have forgotten what my real words are. I have lived disguised from myself, in permanent doubt of my emotional authenticity; and since I am never alone with myself, since I am always watching the character playing my part in the scene, there is no possibility of spontaneity. (p.129)

Accompanying this tremendously narcissistic self-consciousness goes a self-consciously ‘poetic’ style, but of a particularly ‘modern’ variety. During the 1980s the ever-more popular creative writing courses spread the gospel of cutting back on style, removing adjectives, keeping it simple, understating feeling and description in order to produce a taut, clear, plain prose which, however, gives the impression of being charged with suppressed feeling. Less is more. Or at least that’s the intention.

When it doesn’t work, however, it comes over as just plain and boring, particularly if the author turns out not to have much to say, or lacks a real feel for the language. I’m afraid this is how Bennett reads to me:

I go down to the crowd and find myself next to Madeleine. The water-skiers weave and circle, a pied kingfisher hovers twenty feet above the water. There are men in military uniform on the far bank. (p.41)

I wake when she gets up to the bathroom. She urinates, then pads sleepily flat-footed back to bed. She yawns and lets out a small noise as she stretches. She breathes deeply, settling again under the sheet. (p.27)

There is a woman in London. Her name is Margaret. I am not proud of this. (p.49)

I pull out a chair for Madeleine. She takes up her things and comes over. She orders orange juice, coffee, toast and scrambled eggs. She leans back in her chair and crosses her tanned legs. She is wearing a black one-piece swimsuit under her robe. She draws on her cigarette and exhales a jet of smoke. I can’t see her eyes behind the shades. (p.77)

It’s not just that it’s pedestrian, it’s that it’s pedestrian with pretensions to be the kind of taut, understated, reined-in style which secretly conceals profound passion, which I described above as being the regulation, modern, creative-writing class style. It’s the pretentiousness of its deliberate flatness which I find irritating.

But just so we know he doesn’t always have to write this flatly, Bennett jazzes up his basic plain style with 1. occasional flashy metaphors and 2. with turns of phrase which are intended, I think, to come over as sensitive and perceptive, particularly when describing the ‘doomed’ love affair which is the central subject of the novel. 1. Here’s a few examples of his sudden flashes of metaphor:

The pitted sponge of jungle gives way to scrub and sand. The sun is red in the east. (p.9)

Jungle does not look like a sponge. Sponges are sandy colour. Jungle is a thousand shades of green. See what I mean by the deliberate understatement in fact concealing the wish to be taken as poetic.

I might have begun to resent my exclusion from the ribbons of her laughter had I not enjoyed seeing again her social display. (p.23)

‘Ribbons of her laughter’ feels like it is written to impress and it ought to impress but… I’m not impressed. In a way the numb, dumb, plain style is deployed precisely so as to be a background to occasional fireworks but I find Bennett’s fireworks too self-consciously presented for our admiration.

There was a piercing veer to the December wind… (p.72)

2. Here’s some examples of the turns of phrase which are meant to indicate what a sensitive, perceptive soul the writer is, how alert to the subtleties of human relationships, in other words a continuation of his self-pitying sense of his own specialness as a writer, an outsider, a ‘trained observer’.

She is not an early riser, but this morning is different. The air tastes of imminence, there are patterns to the clouds and she can see things. I sit on the bed, silent, feet on the floor. (p.29)

‘The air tastes of imminence.’ There are many phrases like this, rising from the numb, dumb, basic style to signpost the author’s sensitivity to mood and impression. Most of them occur around the subject of his doomed love for passionate, small, sensitive Inès.

Our disagreements are fundamental, our minds dispar, but I live in our differences: my blankness draws on her vitality. She exists me. (p.74)

This type of linguistic deformation wins prizes, literally and is clever and locally effective i.e it gives the reader a frisson of poetic pleasure. But I couldn’t help feeling it wouldn’t be necessary to use rare words or deform syntax like this if he had a more natural ability to express himself with words’ usual meanings and syntax. Instead, moments like this seem designed to show off his special sensitivity, the same sensitivity which condemns him to always be standing apart, at a distance from everyone else. ‘I am not truly part of this’. ‘I move away to stand alone, apart.’ Oh, the poor sweet sensitive soul!

Older man in love with passionate, idealistic, younger woman

It is 1959. James Gillespie is an Irishman living in London. He is a writer. He writes novels.

‘Zoubir tells me you’re a writer,’ de Scheut says. ‘What do you write?’
‘Novels,’ I say.

He has been having an affair with a passionate Italian journalist thirteen year his junior, Inès Sabiani (p.39). (When I was a schoolboy and student I ‘went out’ with girls. It was only at university that the public schoolgirls I met introduced me to the bourgeois domain where people ‘have affairs’, a phrase designed to make hoity-toity people’s lives sound so much more interesting and classy than yours or mine. The way Bennett describes James and Inès’s affair is a good example of the way people in novels often live on a more exalted plane than the humble likes of you and I. Indeed, part of the appeal of this kind of prize-winning novel for its Sunday supplement-reading audience is precisely the way it makes its readers’ lives feel more cosmopolitan, exciting, refined and sensitive.)

The daughter of a communist partisan (p.158), Inès is herself a communist, a passionate, fiery, committed idealist. (Of course she is. Why does this feel so tired and obvious and predictable?) James, her older lover, senses that he is losing her and pines like a puppy to restore their former intimacy. (Of course he does. It feels like I’ve read this tiresome story hundreds of times.)

Why did I react so acerbically? The answer is not hard to find. I am being squeezed out of her orbit. I have come a thousand miles to pin her down, but I see there is no chance of that in these crowded, coursing times. I am bitter. There is no place for me. (p.47)

Inès is a journalist and has been sent to the Belgian Congo to write magazine pieces about the countdown the growing political unrest and calls for independence. The main narrative opens as James flies in to Léopoldville airport, takes a taxi into town and is reunited with his passionate Italian lover. He immediately realises she has become passionately, idealistically committed to the cause of independence and, in particular, to the person of the charismatic Congolese politician, Patrice Lumumba. James is losing her to The Cause.

I look at her with the whole fetch of her story behind my eyes, but she will not yield, she will not soften. Why is she being like this? She used to love me. (p.91)

I wanted to give him a sharp smack and tell him to grow up.

James moves into Inès’s hotel room, they have sex, lie around naked, he watches her pee, they have baths, showers, get dressed, go to parties and receptions. But their former intimacy is somehow lacking and James is puzzled, hurt, frustrated and worries how to restore it. A wall separates them. But then, he realises they are completely different personality types. He is a realist, she is an idealist.

What is real to me is what can be seen; I understand above all else the evidence of the eyes. She is moved by things that cannot be described, that are only half-glimpsed, and when she writes… it is  not primarily to inform her audience, but to touch them. (p.47)

Inès is chronically late for everything, she has no sense of direction, she comically mangles English words and phrases (p.90). It’s almost as if Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus 🙂

His beloved is so special

Oh, but she is so special, this Inès, and inspires the narrator to special feelings about her specialness and his specialness.

She divides me. Her words divide me. Her language refuses the disciplines of the eye, of history, of the world as it is. Her imagination turns on symbol and myth. She lives in the rush of all-embracing sympathy, and sometimes, listening to her song, my lulled motions slip their noose and follow in the blind career of her allegiance… (p.45)

The prose does this, turns to mush, every time he thinks and writes about his beloved, turns into extended dithyrambs to Inès’ passion and intelligence and insight and way with words and commitment. She is small and fragile. She has small breasts. She has a ‘small, slight’ body (p.72), she is light as a feather (p.117), she has a little bottom (p.131). She is ‘small and trembling’ (p.224). She has a tiny hand (p.69), a tiny fist (p.116) just like Mimì in La bohème but her eyes are big and shining. Life is too hard for such a sensitive soul.

All this is contrasted with James’s stolid, pedestrian practicality. He is self consciously ‘older, wry and amused’ by her idealism, by her political passions (p.70). They first met in Ireland where she had come to do interviews and become passionately, naively excited about the IRA and their campaign for  Irish unification. James tells us he will bide his time before filling her in about the complicated realities of a divided Ireland. He thinks she lives in a simplistic world of good and bad, and feels his lack of commitment, his wry amusement at all types of political passion, is sadly superior.

This is the binary opposition they present in Congo: she young, idealistic and passionate about the cause of independence, increasingly and dangerously involved with the key people; he, older, disillusioned, sardonically superior to political engagement, incapable of any commitment, permanently standing to one side.

James’s sentimental worship of Inès, the committed journalist and passionate woman of the people, closely resembles the sentimental worship of his caring, altruistic wife, Tessa, by the older, jaded protagonist of John le Carré’s novel, The Constant Gardener. In both novels the attitude seems to me sentimental, maudlin, patronising and, arguably, sexist.

The Graham Greene paradigm

As to the setting, well, that is genuinely interesting. Not many anglophone novelists have written about the Congo except, of course, Graham Greene, in his gloomy 1960 novel A Burnt-Out Case. About ten of the many fulsome blurbs on The Catastrophist‘s cover compare Bennett to Greene. He must have gotten heartily sick of the comparison.

But what I find most Greeneian about The Catastrophist is not the ‘exotic’ setting but the extreme predictability about almost every aspect of the story. Jaded older man in love is with vivacious younger woman. Frank descriptions of love making undermined by sadness that he is losing her. These are straight out of Greene’s book-length account of a doomed romance in The End of The Affair (1951) and of the doomed romance in The Quiet American (1955).

A few chapters into the narrative Inès takes James to a swanky reception/garden party hosted by one of the most influential local Europeans, Bernard Houthhoofd (p.35). Here James meets a selection of European colonialists, colons to use the French word, who are straight out of central casting, the kind of chorus of secondary characters which seem super-familiar from Graham Greene’s later works, and from all novels of this type.

  • There is the rich host himself, sleek and unperturbed.
  • There is the snobby or arrogant or ignorant middle-class white woman, Madeleine, who thinks all natives or indigènes (as the French-speaking Belgians call them) are ghastly, they are children, they need a strong leader, they are nowhere near ready for independence etc (p.79).
  • There is the decent businessman, de Scheut, who is worried for the safety of his children in these dangerous times.
  • There is Zoubir Smail, a Lebanese-born diamond merchant (p.268).
  • There’s Roger who is, alas, not the lodger but the thoroughly decent English doctor.
  • There’s a journalist, Grant, the epitome of the English public schoolboy with his height, condescension and floppy haircut (p.113).
  • And there is the crop-haired, big-headed American, Mark Stipe (p.39) who may or may not be working for the CIA.

Could it possibly be more like a Graham Greene novel with a cast almost as stereotyped as an Agatha Christie novel? Or like his heir, John le Carré, with his descriptions of privileged ex-pat communities in places like Hong Kong (The Honourable Schoolboy) and Nigeria (The Constant Gardener).

The whole thing feels programmatic and predictable.

Symbolism

The garden party is a good example of another aspect of the novel which is that, although completely realist in style and conception, Bennett is careful to give his scenes symbolic resonance. Thus the garden party at Houthhoofd’s place doesn’t take place in Léopoldville, capital of the Congo (the city which, six years later, Mobutu would rename Kinshasa) but on the other side of the river, in the French colony of Congo (south of the river was the Belgian Congo, north of the river was the French Congo).

The point being that when all the guests become aware of a disturbance back on the Belgian side, some kind of protest which turns into a riot and then the police opening fire on the crowd, they observe all this at a great distance, only barely perceivable through a pair of binoculars one guest happens to have on him. It is a symbol, you see, of the great distance which separated the pampered lives of the European colons from the harsh lives of the locals.

This and various other moments in or aspects of the book feel as if they’ve been written with the Brodie’s Notes summary in mind, with events and characters written to order to fit into sections called Themes, Character, Symbolism, Treatment and so on, ready for classrooms full of bored GCSE students to copy out. All the way through, I had the sensation that I’d read this book before, because the plot, incidental events and many of its perceptions about love and politics feel not only familiar, but so schematic.

In its final quarter The Catastrophist develops into quite a gripping narrative but never shakes the feeling that it has been painted by numbers, written to order, according to a checklist of themes and ideas and insights which had to be included and checked off.

(The riot isn’t a random occurrence. Bennett is describing the protest march which turned into a massacre which led the Belgian authorities to set up a commission of enquiry – which predictably exonerated the police – but was important because it led directly Lumumba’s arrest and imprisonment for alleged incitement in November 1959.)

Sex in the bourgeois novel

Sex is everywhere in the bourgeois novel. One of the main reasons for reading middle-class novels is the sensitive, caring way in which elaborate, imaginative sex between uninhibited and physically perfect partners routinely occurs. Which is all rather unlike ‘real life’ in which my own experience, the experience of everyone I’ve ever slept with or talked to about sex, everything I’ve heard from the women in my life, from feminists, from advice columns, and newspaper articles and surveys, suggest otherwise. In the real world people struggle in all kinds of ways with their sexuality, not least the fact that people are often too ill, sick, tired, drunk or physically incapacitated to feel horny. Most women have periods, some very painful, which preclude sex for a substantial percentage of the time. According to the most thorough research, about 1 in 5 people have some kind of sexually transmitted disease. In other words, sex in the real world is often physically, psychologically and emotionally difficult and messy.

Whereas the way the male protagonists of novels by Graham Greene or David Lodge or Howard Jacobson or Alan Furst (the most eminent literary shaggers I can think of) or, in this case, Ronan Bennett, can barely exchange a few words with a woman before they’re between the sheets having athletic, imaginative sex with women who are physically perfect and have deep, rewarding orgasms. It’s hard not to conclude that this is the wildest male fantasy but at the same time one of the central appeals of the modern novel. Respectable sex. Wonderful and caring sex. The kind of sex we’d all like to have but mostly don’t.

The narrator tells us that Inès climaxes quickly and easily (p.131). Well, that’s handy. And also that Inès prefers to slow love-making right down, hold her partner in position above her, and then rub her clitoris against his penis until she achieves orgasm with short quiet yelps. Once she has climaxed, penetrative lovemaking can continue until the man climaxes inside her (p.72). Well, I’m glad that’s settled, then.

Setting – the Belgian Congo at independence

Anyway, to focus on the actual setting for a moment: the novel is set in the Belgian Congo in late 1959 and covers the period of the runup to independence on 30 June 1960 and then the 6 months of political and social turmoil which followed and led up to the kidnap and murder of the country’s first Prime Minister, the fiery speechmaker and anti-colonial activist Patrice Lumumba.

Bennett deploys a series of scenes designed to capture the tense atmosphere of the time and place. It’s an early example of Bennett’s realist/symbolical approach when he’s barely touched down and is being driven into town, when the car is hit by a stone thrown by an unseen attacker. It is a first tiny warning of  the resentment felt by blacks to privileged whites, an indicator of the violence latent in the situation. Later he and other guests emerge from a restaurant and see a menacing crowd of blacks at the edge of the white, colonial part of town, who escalate from chanting to throwing stones and then into a full-blown attack on shops and cars. Then there is the garden party scene I’ve described, where the guests witness a riot across the river and some of them spy, through the binoculars, the police throwing bodies of the protesters they’ve shot into the river.

Back in their hotel room after the party/riot Inès punches out an angry impassioned description of the protest/massacre on her typewriter to send to her communist magazine, L’Unità.

The American CIA character, Mark Stipe, steadily grows in importance, until he is nearly as central as the  American character, Alden Pyle, in Greene’s Quiet American. Having him work for some, initially unnamed, US government agency means he can quickly brief the narrator on the Real Situation, or at least as the Americans see it. Stipe lets James read their files about the general economic situation (Congo relies entirely on the raw resources mined by the Union Minière) and the leading political figures – Patrice Lumumba head of the MNC political party; Joseph Kasavubu, head of the Alliance des Bakongo (ABAKO) and chief of the Bakongo people; Antoine Gizenga, leader of the Parti Solidiare Africain.

Early on Stipe bumps into James in a bar and surprises him by taking him to see Lumumba’s (boring, ordinary) suburban house, but then driving on to a dingier part of town, where he locates a safe house, owned by one Mungul, where it turns out that Lumumba is actually hiding. Stipe briefly introduces James to Lumumba, before disappearing into another room for a private convo.

In other words, Stipe plays the role of Exposition, feeding the narrator all the important facts about the political situation so that he (and the reader) can quickly get up to speed.

But he also plays another important role, that of binary opposite to idealistic Inès. Stipe is the slangy, cynical, seen-it-all realist. After talking to him, James feels he knows what is really going on, and this makes him feel superior when he goes back to the apartment and talks to Inès who is all fired up about Freedom and Justice. With our Brodie’s Notes hat on, we could say the novel asks the question: who is right? Cynical Stipe or idealistic Inès? Which side should jaded old James commit to?

(This points to another way in which the conventional modern novel flatters its readers: it makes us feel we understand what’s going on. It makes us feel clever, in the know, well-connected whereas, in my experience of political journalism, no-one knows what’s going on. As the subsequent history of the Congo amply demonstrates…Novels which present neat moral dilemmas like this are almost by definition unrealistic, because most of us live our entire lives without being faced with really stark choices.)

Stipe and Lumumba share a driver/fixer named Auguste Kilundu (p.252). He is one of the rare African voices in the novel. Through him Bennett displays a lot of background information, namely about the évolués, the tiny educated elite which emerged in the last decade of Belgian rule. In 1952 the colonial administration introduced the carte d’immatriculation which granted blacks who held it full legal equality with Europeans. It required a detailed assessment of the candidate’s level of ‘civilisation’ by an investigating commission who even visited their homes to make sure the toilet and the cutlery were clean.

Bennett makes this character, Auguste, the proud possessor of a carte d’immatriculation and another vehicle for factual exposition for he can explain to the all-unknowing narrator the tribal backgrounds and rivalries of the main Congolese politicians. Having handily given us all this exposition, Auguste is then depicted as an enthusiastic supporter of Lumumba’s MNC party which aims to supersede tribalism and create a post-tribal modern nation (pages 85 to 88).

The plot

Part one: Léopoldville, November 1959

Middle-aged, Northern Irish novelist James Gillespie flies into the Belgian Congo in November 1959 to be with his lover, Italian communist journalist, Inès Sabiani. He quickly finds himself drawn into the drama surrounding the run-up to Congo’s hurried independence, forced along by growing unrest and rivalry between native politicians, with a small cast of characters European and Congolese giving differing perspectives on the main events. Central to these is the American government agent Mark Stipe.

James witnesses riots. He sees little everyday scenes of racial antagonism, the daily contempt of the colons for the blacks they insultingly call macaques or ‘monkeys’. He writes articles for the British press about the growing calls for independence and, as a rersult, is spat on and punched in restaurants by infuriated colons. His little cohort of liberal Belgians and ex-pat British friends support him. He grows increasingly estranged from Inès who is out till all hours following up stories, befriending the locals, getting the lowdown and then punching out angry articles on her typewriter for L’Unità. They both watch Lumumba being arrested by the nervous colonial police in front of a crowd of angry blacks following the October riot.

The narrative then skips a few months to the opening of the Belgo-Congolese Round Table Conference which commenced on 20 January 1960. Then skips to 27 February, the date on which the conference announced that full independence would be granted on 30 June 1960. They go out to watch a black freedom march but Inès helps turn it into a riot by walking arm in arm with Lumumba’s évolué driver, Auguste. The sight of a white woman walking with a black man prompts bigoted colons to wade into the crowd and abuse her, and to drag Auguste off and give him a beating. James wades in to protect Inès and has a brief punch-up with a big whitey, before managing to take her out of the mob, though he can do nothing to save Auguste who is beaten to the ground by a furious white mob.

For a period following the riot, Inès is ill, confined to bed, vomiting and losing weight. James is quietly pleased about this as she is restricted to contact with him, ceases her political activities and gives him hope their love will be rekindled. They hadn’t been sleeping together but now, on one occasion, they have sensitive soulful sex of the kind found in sensitive novels about sensitive people designed to thrill sensitive readers.

James and Inès attend an MNC rally in the Matongé stadium in the build-up to the pre-independence elections (held in May 1960). Stipe invites James to go on a long road trip with him and Auguste to the province of Katanga in the south-east. On the journey Stipe shares a lot about his personal life (unhappily married) and motivation.

On the journey it also becomes clear that Auguste is changing and is no longer so sheepish and submissive. Inès has told James that Auguste has not only joined Lumumba’s MNC but been appointed to a senior position. James is surprised; he thought him an amiable simpleton. On the road trip Stipe loses his temper with Auguste because, he admits, he doesn’t want him cosying up to Lumumba and getting hurt. En route they come across abandoned burned villages. The Baluba and Lulua tribes are fighting, a foreshadowing of the huge tribal divisions and ethnic cleansing which were to bedevil the independent Congo.

They meet with Bernard Houthhoofd at his beautiful property in Katanga. Bennett gives us facts and figures about Katanga’s stupefying mineral wealth. Over dinner Stipe and Houthhoofd list Lumumba’s failings: he smokes dope, he screws around, but chief among them is that he is taking money from the Soviets. A senior official from the MNC, the vice-chairman Victor Nekanda, is at this dinner and promises to betray Lumumba and set up a rival party, a symbol of the kind of two-faced African politician, all-too-ready to sell out to Western, particularly, American backers.

On the long drive back from Katanga to the capital they come to a village where they had stopped on  the outward journey, and find it burned to the ground in tribal violence, every inhabitant killed, many chopped up. They discover that the kindly schoolteacher who had helped them has been not only murdered but his penis cut off (p.175). Premonitions of the future which independence will bring.

On his return to Léopoldville (abbreviated by all the colons to Leo) James has a blazing row with Inès, throwing all the accusations he heard about Lumumba in her face (dope fiend, adulterer, commie stooge). She replies accusing him of lacking heart, compassion and morality and being the dupe of the exploiting colonial regime and its American replacement.

She also accuses him of denying himself and his true nature and for the first time we learn that James’s real name is actually Seamus and he that he has taken an exaggeratedly English name and speaks with an exaggerated English accent because he is on the run from his own past in Ulster, particularly his violent father who beat his mother. Aha. This family background explains why James sees the worst in everyone. Explains why he can’t afford to hope – it’s too painful, he (and his mum) were let down by his violent father too many times.

This blazing row signals the final collapse of their relationship. Inès moves out and James descends into drunken, middle-aged man, psycho hell. He drinks, he loses weight. Stipe and de Scheut take him for meals, offer to have him come stay. Just before the elections in May 1960 he can’t bear to stay in the empty apartment, moves to a rented room, writes Inès a letter begging forgiveness. Grow up, man.

Part two: Ireland and England

Part two leaps back in time to be a brief memoir about James’s aka Seamus’s Irish family – his father, William, a good-looking English graduate who swept his optimistic Catholic mother, Nuala, off her feet, and slowly turned into a maudlin, wife-beating drunk. Seamus serves in the army in the Second World War, goes to university, moves to London to complete a PhD about 17th century England. The narrative dwells on the unhappiness of his parents’ own upbringings and then the humiliations and unhappiness they brought to their own marriage. It is grim, depressing reading, conveyed in Bennett’s plainest, starkest prose.

One day, budding academic James picks up a novel in a second hand shop in London, starts reading, can’t stop, reads more, buys more novels, reads obsessively and decides to become a writer, abandons his PhD, meets a young publisher who encourages him, blah blah.

A novelist writing a novel about a novelist writing about how he became a novelist. Could anything be more boring? All painfully earnest, serious, sensitive, not one bloody joke.

Obviously, the purpose of this brief digression is to shed light on the narrator’s psychology and why he fell so hard for Inès and why he was so devastated when she permanently dumped him after their big argument. Those with an interest in unhappy Irish childhoods will love this section, but I was relieved to find it mercifully short, pages 187 to 202.

Part three: Léopoldville, November 1960

I.e. the Irish digression allows the narrative to leap six months forwards from May 1960 when we left it. It is now five months after independence was achieved (on 30 June 1960), after five months of chaos, army mutinies, riots, regional secessions, ethnic cleansing, economic collapse, all of which have led up to the first of Joseph-Désiré Mobutu’s coups, on 14 September.

The narration resumes five weeks after Mobutu’s coup. (It is important to be aware that Mobutu had himself been appointed the new Congo Army’s chief of staff by Lumumba himself and, when the troops mutinied 4 days after independence, he had been charged with dealing with the mutiny and then the series of nationwide crises which followed in quick succession. So Lumumba put his friend and former secretary into the position which he then used to overthrow, imprison and, ultimately, murder his old boss.)

As the chaos unfolded everyone told James to flee the country, as 30,000 Belgians did after the army mutiny and riots of July, but he stayed on and heard Mobutu declare his coup in September and arrest Lumumba.

Now the narrative follows James as he dines with Stipe, the American ambassador and other furtive Yanks, presumably CIA, who now dismiss Lumumba as a commie bastard. The historical reason for this is that Lumumba asked the UN for help putting down the secessionist movements in Katanga and Kasai and, when they sent a few peacekeepers but said they wouldn’t directly intervene, a panic-stricken Lumumba turned to the Soviet Union which immediately gave him guns and lorries and planes i.e. he wasn’t himself a communist, he was taking help from whoever offered it.

The conflict came to a head on the 14 September when the new nation had the surreal experience of hearing President Kasavubu on the radio sacking Lumumba as Prime Minister, followed an hour later by Prime Mininster Lumumba sacking President Kasavubu. It was this absurd political stalemate which Mobutu found himself called on to resolve. Hence he stepped in himself to take control and then, under pressure from the Belgians but especially the Americans, to place his former friend and boss under house arrest.

Knowing his days were numbered, Lumumba begged for UN protection, so – in the present which the novel is describing – his house is now surrounded by blue helmets, themselves surrounded by Congo Army forces. If the UN leaves, everyone knows Lumumba will be murdered, in much the way his followers are now being rounded up and liquidated.

Because this kind of schematic novel always reflects political events in personal events, it is no great surprise, in fact it feels utterly inevitable, when Stipe tells James that his lady love, Inès, is now ‘having an affair with’ Auguste, Stipe’s former chauffeur and friend, who has apparently risen to heights in Lumumba’s MNC having spent a month being indoctrinated in communist Czechoslovakia.

Right from the start of the novel we’ve been aware of James’s attraction to the solid, big-breasted, bigoted colon Madeleine. Now we learn that, on the rebound from Inès, James is fucking her shamelessly, alone in her big house, regularly. ‘Fuck’ is the operative word because Madeline enjoys BDSM and eggs James on to be rougher, harder, swear, shout abuse, slap her. Obviously he enjoys it at the time but later broods, despises himself and wishes he had Inès back.

The difference between the cruel sex with Madeleine and the sensual sex with Inès is as schematic as everything else in the novel and obviously signals the transition from the pre-independence spirit of optimism and the post-independence spirit of cynicism and violence.

Something happens half way through this final long section: the novel begins to morph into a thriller. Out of the blue Inès makes James’s deepest wish come true and contacts him… but not to beg forgiveness and say how much she loves him, but to turn up on his doorstep, collapsing from malaria and begging him to go fetch Auguste from the village outside Léopoldville where he’s hiding and bring him back into town so he can catch a secret flight from the airport which has been arranged by Egypt’s President Nasser to evacuate all MNC members (p.225).

So in the final 40 or so pages the novel turns into a thriller very much in the John le Carré vein, with fat bumbling, self-absorbed novelist suddenly finding himself in serious trouble with the authorities and forced to demonstrate something like heroism.

The tension is racked up for all it’s worth. Calling bland, imperturbable English doctor Roger to come and tend to Inès, James drives out to the village and finds Auguste, alright. He is disgusted when Auguste asks him to help him pack up his and Inès’s belongings from the room in the shanty house which they have obviously been sharing, where Auguste has been screwing her. James stares at the bed, his head full of queasy imaginings.

James hides Auguste in the boot as he drives back into town. He stops at Leo’s main hotel to phone Roger the doctor who is tending to Inès. It is in the hotel immediately after the call, that James is confronted by Stipe who for the first time is not friendly. He asks James twice if he knows where Auguste and both times James lies. Stipe knows James is lying but can’t prove it. James knows Stipe knows and becomes painfully self-conscious about every reply, wondering if his smile is too fake, if Stipe can see the sweat trickling down his brow. Stipe tells him he is being a fool, he is in way over his head, then says a contemptuous goodbye.

James walks back out the hotel to his car realising it’s too dangerous to take Auguste to his own apartment, which is probably being watched. He has a brainwave – Madeline! No-one would suspect the bigoted colon Madeleine of having anything to do with MNC freedom fighters (so Madeleine serves two narrative functions; symbolic dirty sex, and owner of safe house).

So James drives Auguste to Madeleine’s nice town house and, from there, phones his own flat and asks Roger to bring Inès there too. No-one will think of looking for them there. They’ll be safe till the plane arrives. Roger arrives with Inès. Good. Everyone is safe.

So, promising to return and take them to the airport, James drives back to his own house. And sure enough is greeted by a platoon of soldiers. He’s barely begun to protest his innocence before the captain in charge simply borrows a rifle from one of his men and hits James very hard in the side of his head with the rifle butt, kicking him in the guts on the way down, punching and slapping him till he vomits and wets himself. Stipe was right. He’s in way over his head.

He is thrown into the back of an army lorry, kicked and punched more, then dragged into a prison courtyard, along corridors and thrown into a pitch black cell, where he passes out.

He is woken and dragged to an interrogation room where he is presented with the corpse of Zoubir Smail, the Lebanese-born diamond merchant he met at Houthhoofd’s garden party. Smail has been beaten so that every inch of his body is covered with bruises and his testicles swollen up like cricket balls where they have been battered.

James is still reeling from this when the door opens and in comes Stipe, smooth as silk, to interrogate him. There’s no rough stuff, but Stipe psychologically batters him by describing in detail how Auguste fucks Inès, what a big dick he has, how Auguste once confided in Stipe once that he likes sodomy. Stipe forces James to imagine the sounds Inès must make when Auguste takes her from behind. It works. James is overcome with fury and jealousy but he repeatedly refuses to admit he knows where Auguste is. Not for Auguste’s sake, not for the damn ’cause’ – because he thinks being tight-lipped it will help him keep Inès.

Then, as abruptly as he was arrested, they release him, black soldiers dragging him along another corridor to a door, opening it and pushing him out into the street. Simple as that.

James staggers out into the sunlight and there’s Stipe waiting in a swish American car, offering him a friendly lift home, bizarre, surreal. But also telling him, in a friendly way, that he has three days to pack his stuff and leave the country. He apologises for subjecting him to the ordeal, but he was just doing his job.

Then, in the final chapter of this section, the narrative cuts to the scene the novel opened with. We learn that James was able to drive back to Madeleine’s, collect Inès and Auguste and drive them to the airport where they meet up with Lumumba and his people. Except no plane arrived from Egypt. Nothing. So the little convoy of MNC officials go int a huddle and decide to drive east, into the heart of the country, towards Lumumba’s native region where he will be able to raise a population loyal to him.

So they drive and drive, Auguste, Inés, James, Lumumba in a different car with his wife Pauline and young son Roland. But James is appalled at the way they dilly-dally at every village they come to, stopping to chat to the village elders, Lumumba unable to pass by opportunities to press the flesh and spread his charisma.

With the result that, as they arrive at the ferry crossing of the river Sankuru, Mobutu’s pursuing forces catch up with them, a detachment of soldiers and a tracker plane. Lumumba had successfully crossed the river with key followers, including Auguste, but leaving Pauline and Roland to catch it after it returns. But now the soldiers have grabbed her and his son. Everyone watches the figure on the other side of the river, will he disappear into the jungle or… then they see him step back onto the ferry and bid the ferryman steer it back over towards the soldiers. His wife shouts at him not to do it, Inès is in floods of tears, James is appalled.

And sure enough, the moment he steps off the ferry he is surrounded by soldiers who start to beat and punch him. The reader knows this is the start of the calvary which will lead, eventually, to one of Africa’s brightest, most charismatic leaders being flown to the remote city of Elizabethville, taken out into some god-forsaken field, beaten, punched and then executed his body thrown into a well.

James and Inès are released and make it back to Leo, where they immediately pack their things and take the ferry across the river to the freedom and sanity of the French Congo. Here they set up house together and live happily for weeks. Inès even deigns to have sex with poor, pitiful James.

But then one day she gets an AP wire that Lumumba has been murdered (17 January 1961). Mobutu had sent him to Katanga, allegedly for his own safety, but well aware he’d be done in. The official story is that Lumumba was set upon and massacred by villagers in revenge for the killing of their people by Lumumba’s tribe. But everyone knows the murder was committed by the authorities.

The final Congo scene is of Lumumba’s widow leaving the Regina hotel where she had gone to ask for her husband’s body back and walking down a central Boulevard Albert I with her hair shorn and topless, the traditional Congolese garb of mourning, and slowly the city’s civilians stop their work to join her.

James finds himself and Inès caught up in the crowd and then Inès lets go his hand and is swept away. It is another totally realistic but heavily symbolic moment, for the crowd is chanting Freedom and Independence and so it is perfect that Inès the idealist is carried away with it, becomes one with it – while James finds himself confronted by Stipe, furious that he lied to him, who punches him, hard, knocking him to the ground, where various members of the crowd stumble over him and he is in danger of being trampled. Always the clumsy stumbling outsider.

Until at the last moment he is lifted to his feet and dusted off by Charles, the reticent black servant who tended the house he had been renting in Leo. And with his symbolic separation from the love of his life, his near trampling by the Forces of Freedom, his beating up by the forces of capitalist America, and his rescue by one act of unprompted black kindness, the main narrative of the novel ends.

Part four: Bardonnecchia, August 1969

There is a seven page coda. It is 8 years later. James lives in Italy. He spends summer in this remote village up near the French border. In the evenings he dines at the Gaucho restaurant. The atmosphere is relaxed and the food is excellent. Of course it is. He knows the waiter and the owner and the pizza chef and the owner of the little bookshop on the other side of the railway line. Of course he does. Late in the evening he sits on chatting to some or all of them. In the absence of Inès his prose is back to its flat dulness.

This year Alan has come out to join me for a week. His reputation as a publisher has grown in tandem with mine as a writer. It is a moot point who has done more for whom. (p.306)

I help him aboard with his luggage and we shake hands. Alan has his ambitions, he can sometimes be pompous, but he is a good man. I am sad that he is going. (p.311)

Dead prose.

He tells us his most successful novel to date was the one about a middle-aged sex-mad novelist and his doomed affair for a passionately little Italian woman who climaxes easily. In other words, the one we’ve just read. A novel featuring a novelist describing how he wrote a novel describing the events he’s just described to us in his novel! How thrillingly post-modern! Or dull and obvious, depending on taste.

James is still obsessed by Inès. With wild improbability he hears her name mentioned by someone in the restaurant, asks about her and discovers she is now one of Italy’s premier foreign correspondents, writing angry despatches from Vietnam. People in novels like this are always eminent, successful, have passionate sex, know the right people, are at the heart of events.

Every morning he waits for the post but there has never been any letter from her. He is a sad sack. Why 1969? So Bennett can set this coda against the outbreak of violence in Northern Ireland. His mother and sister have joined the marchers for civil rights. Young men are throwing bricks and bottles at British soldiers. We know now this was to lead to 29 years of bloodshed, strife, murders, bombings and lawlessness. The world is not as we want it to be. What we want to happen, doesn’t. Marches for independence, marches for freedom have a tendency to end not just in bloodshed, but decades of bloodshed.

The novel ends on a note for the sensitive. The sad narrator knows he will now never see Inès again. I know. Tragedy. Cataclysm. After waving Alan off on the train back to London he takes a walk up the hill to be soulful and solitary. Inèes told him she could always be found among the marchers for freedom and justice. But he is trapped in his own disbelief:

She encouraged me, beckoned me forward. She promised that was where I’d find her. But I could never join her there. I was always too much a watcher, too much l’homme-plume; I was divided, unbelieving. My preference is the writer’s preference, for the margins, for the avoidance of agglomerations and ranks. I failed to find her and I know this failure will mark the rest of my life. (p.312)

I can imagine some readers bursting into tears at this sad and sensitive conclusion, but as I’ve given ample evidence, I found this entire ‘sensitive writer’ schtick clichéd, tiresome, self-centred, hackneyed, old and boring.

Bennett has taken the extraordinary history of the Congo and turned it into a schematic matrix of binary characters and simplistic symbols. Active v passive; male v female; idealistic v cynical; radical v reactionary. The Catastrophist is a good example of why I struggle to read contemporary novels; not because they’re about contemporary society so much as because they tend to wear their sensitive, soulful credentials on their sleeves and humble-brag about their bien-pensant, liberal, woke attitude.

And in doing so miss the dirty, uncomfortable, messy complexities of actual life and politics which don’t fit into any categories, whose ironic reversals defy neat pigeon-holing and clever symbolism.

The catastrophist

is James. It’s another example of Inès’ shaky grasp of English. She says there’s an Italian word, catastrofista which perfectly suits James, and they agree that ‘catastrophist’ is probably the nearest translation into English. Anyway, a ‘catastrophist’ always sees the dark side and thinks nothing can be fixed and uses this pessimism as an excuse for never trying to improve the world, to achieve justice and equality. That’s what she thinks James is.

‘If you are catastrofista no problem is small. Nothing can be fixed, it is always the end.’ (p.131)

And maybe he is. Who cares.

Thoughts

The Catastrophist is a slick well-made production which wears its bien-pensant, sensitive heart on its sleeve. By dint of repetition we come to believe (sort of) in old, disillusioned James aka Seumus and his forlorn love for passionate little (the adjective is used again and again) Inès.

The issues surrounding Congo independence are skilfully woven into the narrative, the mounting sense of crisis is cleverly conveyed through the escalation of incidents which start with a stone being thrown at his car, mount through minor riots to the hefty peace rally massacre, on to the horrifying scene of tribal massacre in Kisai, a litany of violence which, I suppose, climaxes with James being beaten up in the interrogation room and being confronted with the tortured corpse of someone he actually knows (Smail).

The thematic or character structure of the novel is howlingly obvious: Inès is on the side of the angels, the optimists, the independence parties, the clamourers for freedom and justice. James is very obviously the half-hearted cynic who tags along with her for the sake of his forlorn passion.

But it is the steely, hard, disdainful colon Madeleine who won my sympathy. During an early attempt to seduce James, as part of their sparring dialogue, she says if the Congolese ever win independence it will be a catastrophe. And it was. Sometimes the right-wing, racist, colonial bigots who are caricatured and mocked in the liberal press, liberal novels and liberal arts world – sometimes they were actually right.

For me, personally, reading this novel was useful because it repeated many of the key facts surrounding Congo independence from a different angle, and so amounted to a kind of revision, making key players and events that bit more memorable. For example, Bennett confirms David van Reybrouck’s comment about the sudden explosion of political parties in the run-up to the independence elections, their overnight emergence and febrile making and breaking of alliances. And echoes van Reybrouck’s list of the common people’s illusions about independence. He has a good scene where an MNC candidate addresses a remote village and promises that, at independence, they will all be given big houses and the wives of the whites; that they will find money growing in their fields instead of manioc; that their dead relatives will rise from their graves (p.164).

So I enjoyed everything about the background research and a lot of the way Bennett successfully dramatises events of the period. You really believe you’re there. That aspect is a great achievement. The love affair between self-consciously writerly older writer and passionate young idealistic woman bored me to death.

Since the events depicted in the book, Congo underwent the 30-year dictatorship of Mobutu, more massacres and ethnic cleansing until the Rwandan genocide spilled out into the first and second Congo wars, the overthrow of Mobutu, the incompetent rule of Laurent Kabila and his assassination, followed by more years of chaos until recent elections promised some sort of stability. But the population of Congo at independence, when this novel was set, was 14 million. Today, 2021, it is 90 million and the median age is 19. The place and its people look condemned to crushing poverty for the foreseeable future.

The Catastrophist‘s imagining of the mood and events of the period it depicts are powerful and convincing. But in the larger perspective it seems like a white man’s fantasy about a period which is now ancient history to the majority of the country, and whose maudlin self-pitying narrator is almost an insult to the terrible tribulations the country’s population endured and continue to face.

Credit

The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett was published by REVIEW in 1998. All references are to the 1999 paperback edition.


Africa-related reviews

History

Fictions set wholly or partly in Africa

Exhibitions about Africa

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré (2001)

‘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.

Posh characters

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.

The plot

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

Elba

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.

Bielefeld

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…

Ghita’s quest

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…

Switzerland

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.

Saskatchewan

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:

  1. Dypraxa’s side effects are being concealed in the name of profit
  2. the world’s poorest communities are being used as guinea pigs by the world’s richest
  3. 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.

Kenya

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.

Lokichoggio

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.

The cover-up

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

Legends

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.

Lechery

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.

Fuck

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)

Italics

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)

Timeframes

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.

Interview

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.


The movie

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.

Credit

The Constant Gardener by John le Carré was published in 2001 by Hodder and Stoughton. All quotes are from the 2005 Coronet paperback edition.

Related links

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)
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