Wednesday, June 6, 2007

The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré

The Constant Gardener by John Le Carré

Pages: 508
Coronet Books

Tessa is the wife of a minor British diplomat in Nairobi, and is an active crusader for human rights. When she is murdered, her husband Justin awakens himself from his careful apathy and, sorting out the threads that led to her death, sets off in her footsteps. His journey takes him around the world, to a village retreat in Italy, a non-government organisation in Germany, an ostracised scientist in Canada, a food distribution area in southern Sudan, and in the end back to Kenya and the scene of Tessa's death.

In The Constant Gardener, Le Carré offers a compelling account of a man on the run, chased by his "own" side (Intelligence and the Foreign Office) as well as by the bad guys (thugs working for a pharmaceutical company). He presents a characteristically unflattering portrait of the machinations of bureaucracy and bureaucrats. As well as following Justin, we get a glimpse inside the mind of his timeserving and lecherous colleague Sandy. He is an example of not overt evil — the thugs and the corporate executives who send them remain in the background — but of those who allow evil to happen by averting their eyes and by following orders rather than their conscience.

The Constant Gardener revolves around a drug, a diplomat, and a murder. Dypraxa is a new cure for tuberculosis, developed by a Swiss pharmaceutical company that is testing it unscrupulously, and at great human cost, among Kenyan villagers and slum-dwellers in preparation for its debut in the U.S. and other developed nations. Tessa Quayle, a diplomatic wife, attorney and idealist, discovers the corruption and malevolence at the heart of this scheme, only to get her throat cut in the bush north of Nairobi when she threatens to expose the sordid mess. The novel unfolds as Tessa's husband follows her path into the darker recesses of corporate greed, Foreign Office duplicity, and medical science in the service of profit.

''Tuberculosis is megabucks,'' Le Carré writes,” Any day now the richest nations will be facing a tubercular pandemic, and Dypraxa will become the multibillion-dollar earner that all good shareholders dream of.''

Beneath the politics, we find the variance between individuals and their institutional identities that runs through more or less all of Le Carré's novels. Justin Quayle, diplomat and suddenly a widower, is the constant gardener referred to in Le Carré's title: He is complacent in his dedication to the ethos of the British Foreign Office. Justin chucks out his Etonian manners in order to pursue his late wife's cause, joining Le Carré’s renegades in revolt against their circumstances. The Constant Gardener is about the human capacity for transformation. Through Justin, the political themes are elevated to questions of loyalty, integrity, and personal sovereignty in a world that rewards betrayal, venality, and the abdication of moral responsibility.

The Constant Gardener is set in Kenya and traces the extraordinary events within a close-knit British community living in Nairobi, working for Her Majesty's Government and for aid agencies. One gets to see some of the city of Nairobi and its outlying countryside, as well as the machinations of the Kenyan government and media. The politics of the country alone and in relation to the UK, is very much part of the story too. However, the book's focus is its characters. The story unfolds through sharp, clear characterization and strong dialogues.