The Constant Gardener by John le Carre (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001)

As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard. -- John le Carre

John le Carre made his name in the post-WWII Cold War era and created characters like George Smiley. With the fall of the Berlin Wall John le Carre had to move to pastures new. The threat to democracy today is not the Soviet Union, KGB or Communism but globalisation and global corporations who will destroy anyone and anything who stands in their way. With the skill of a master craftsman thriller writer le Care opens up the ruthless world of corporate business run by Mafioso thugs who don't hesitate to resort brutal killings and intimidation to protect their empires, never directly of course, friends of friends and unknown associates.

By one of those strange quirks of fate, life imitating art, the publication of The Constant Gardener coincided with the drugs industry taking South Africa to the Pretoria High Court to have a law providing cheap generic drugs struck down. The rationale wheeled out by the pharmaceutical industry for taking South Africa to court over its plans to provide low-cost drugs to combat Aids was that there would be no incentive to develop new cures without strong protection. For protection, patents read profit. As one of the characters in le Carre's book says: 'Don't talk to me about research and development costs. The pharmaceutical boys wrote them off 10 years ago and a lot of their money comes from governments in the first place, so they're talking crap. What we've got here is an amoral monopoly that costs human lives every day, OK.'

The Constant Gardener opens with the death of Tessa Quayle, young wife of middle-ranking diplomat and old Etonian Justin Quayle. Tessa is found in the Kenyan outback with her throat slit, her African driver beheaded, and a her friend, companion and guru, Arnold Bluhm, suspected of her death, nowhere to be found.

Stunningly vivacious and full of life when alive, in death Tessa is a bloated carcass (what do you expect after 48 hours in the heat of Kenya).

The story is a personal quest and pilgrimage for Justin Quayle as he tries to uncover his wife's life and death and at the same time discover his self.

Attention to detail is excellent, whether it be the description of the appalling squalor in African hospitals or the use of Tessa's laptop. Tessa's killers made off with her back-ups on floppy disk but Justin manages to retrieve her laptop. Completely computer illiterate he has no idea how to access the information that may be contained within. Eventually he is forced to seek the help of a sick Albanian schoolboy, one of the waifs and strays rescued by Tessa. Part of the laptop is password protected. We learn more of decent password generation than provided by most so-called experts on security. Justin eventually goes on-line to access Tessa's latest e-mails. The laptop is immediately attacked by a virus, as he later discovers was everyone who was working with Tessa, and rendered useless.

Characterisation is also good, no cardboard cut out thriller characters here. Anyone who has dealt with the pompous asses at the FO will immediately recognise the type. Anyone who has ever worked as an activist will immediately recognise the office of the pharma watch NGO and the people who work there. A place Justin visits on his voyage of discovery, but Tessa's only contact was via e-mail.

Tessa was not a conventional diplomat's wife and to safeguard Justin she kept most of what she did and learnt from him. Both Tessa and Justin were from privileged backgrounds, Tessa twenty years his junior. Feminist, lawyer and activist, Tessa was prepared to work in the field and did not like what she found - massive corruption, drugs companies using Africans as guinea pigs for their untested drugs.

Early in the book we have Tessa haranguing the political head of the Nairobi High Commission. He sees the FO role as serving the interest of Her Majesty (whatever that may be), and looking after the interests of British business. If Africans suffer, if there is widespread corruption, this is not for us to comment upon, let alone act upon.

Tessa hands a detailed dossier to the High Commission, the existence of which Justin is unaware, much to the disbelief of Scotland Yard detectives sent out to investigate her murder. The dossier is sent to London and immediately classified.

Following her death Tessa is dismissed as a loose cannon and deranged, anything to discredit her and anything she may have said or written. This is applied to Justin once it is seen that he is trying to uncover the truth and can no longer be relied upon as one of the old school.

Shades of manic Maxwell and Tiny Roland (Ted Heath's unacceptable face of capitalism) as the head of the British company marketing the wonder drug, and with fingers in many other African pies. Their posters depicting smiling healthy African families bring to mind Nestle and their Baby Milk promotions.

TB is the white death, the consumption of 19th century novels, the disease not mentioned. TB is on the rise, once it breaks out in the West it will be a multibillion bonanza to the drugs companies.

On his pilgrimage and remembering his security briefings Justin displays all the trade craft of the Circus and Smiley's people.

Like Dickens, le Carre writes from the heart. Le Carre takes us through the squalor of Africa, Moi's corruption, FO indifference and complicity, the greed and violence of big business. Tame scientists are two a penny, fund their projects and they will endorse your products, speak out and your career will be destroyed. The only person who comes out well apart from Tessa, Justin and their close friends and allies is MI6's resident spook who has his own agenda. Dickens brought to society's attention the scandals it would rather not know about and eventually led to reform. Will le Carre be able to do the same?

Le Carre shows that he is writing of matters close to his heart as in the afterword he refers to BUKO Pharma-Kampagne a real world German pharma watch NGO that mirrors the fictional NGO which was working with Tessa Quayle and asks his readers to support their work.

With the death of Graham Greene, le Carre is our only remaining true novelist worthy of name (a distant second comes Iain Banks). It is hard to believe anyone took seriously the spat between Satanic Verses author Salman Rushdie and his illiterate scribblings and a real novelist like le Carre.

Eat your heart out Conrad.

The Constant Gardener is banned in Kenya.

Highly recommended.

The Constant Gardener is now a film starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz.

Books Worth Reading
(c) Keith Parkins 2005 -- October 2005 rev 1