Blood and bodies

John Le Carré


For years, like many, I was a confirmed John Le Carré fanatic. Even rumor of something new from Le Carré was cause to drop all else and devote one’s whole attention to this master spy novelist. It was not simply the ingenuity of his plots or their close proximity to the real skullduggery in the world, nor the exquisitely torturous tension produced by his evocative use of language nor even the endearing character of his primary spook, the ever-cuckolded curmudgeon, George Smiley.

All those mattered. But what mattered most was their uses in the exploration of Le Carré’s great theme: the inescapable moral conundrums of those who would do right, but whose only means of action require doing wrong. At what point, Le Carré inquired, do deception and double-dealing, even in the best of causes, hollow out the soul?

But I confess that I haven’t kept up with Le Carré since The Little Drummer Girl, nearly two decades ago. I recently found myself picking up John Le Carré’s latest, The Constant Gardener. I am very glad that I did.

The scene of action is Africa and the focus is the globalizing strategies and tactics of multinational pharmaceutical companies as promoted and protected by government. In Nairobi, Kenya, we find the former British colonists now working as the handmaidens for the “pharmagiants,” whose desires for markets, experimental test subjects and philanthropic PR produce a sickeningly malevolent brew of moral hypocrisy. The result is the novel’s opening revelation of the throat-slitting of the wife of a British consular officer, the decapitation of her driver, and the kidnapping of her friend, an African doctor and aid worker.

The reverberations of this event amidst the British High Command in Kenya and the Foreign Office in London are brilliantly delineated, the blood and bodies calculatedly disposed of by the bureaucratic machinery. Just as with the death of a politician or corporate official or anyone else in an institutional setting, the loss and mourning is rapidly replaced by the remaining players’ wishes for gain, for advancement or for avoidance of loss of position and power. The internal struggle, within the hierarchy and within each individual, over the official story with which these deaths will be explained dominates even the slightest desire for the truth.

Except, of course, for one person. Unfortunately for this review, naming this person would decimate a good deal of satisfaction for the prospective reader, as Le Carré pulls off a dazzling sleight of hand in launching the protagonist. In The Constant Gardener, we experience the wondrous power of what happens when even one person breaks with the system, goes off the reservation, plays the game against itself.

The dangers that a bureaucratic renegade must run are near total, as almost everyone has an interest in the system working unhindered. Who can be trusted to put the truth above their own ambition? Who uses their virtue as a cover for personal gain? As Le Carré repeatedly reminds us, “In a civilized country you can never tell.”

The novel is not without its problems. Sometimes the plot mechanics slow the progression, as if a magician about to pull a rabbit from the hat stops to discourse on the varieties of rabbit.

Sometimes Le Carré’s outrage at the multinational pharmaceuticals seems to break all limits. But just when that thought crossed my mind, the Washington Post began a seven-part series called “The Body Hunters," about the pharmagiants exploitation of Third World peoples for unregulated testing of drugs. In a civilized country you can never tell.