The Constant Gardener by John le Carré

Scribner 2000 496 pp. 28.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford   


John le Carré’s fiction has always concerned itself with nations that pursue a mistaken idea of self-interest at the expense of their citizens.  Until the fall of the Wall, spies operated as their nations’ agents, with routinely destructive personal consequences.  Le Carré’s fine new novel, The Constant Gardner, dispenses altogether with the Russians, discovering in capitalists people who don’t understand their self-interest any better than politicians.

This time out, le Carré’s story, although drifting across continents, is set primarily in Africa. While Kenya occupies center stage, his tale could be that of many a sub-Saharan nation mired in poverty, benighted by ignorance and, most important for his story, overwhelmed by disease.  As a character notes,

“Africa has eighty percent of the world’s AIDS sufferers … That’s a conservative estimate. Three-quarters of them receive no medication. For this we must thank the pharmaceutical companies and their servants, the U.S. State Department, who threaten with sanctions any country that dares produce its own cheap version of American-patented medicines.”

Justin Quayle is the first secretary of the British Chancery in Nairobi, the capital of a country the British had long used “as an adventure playground for derelict upper-class swingers.”  He is not oblivious to this medical holocaust, given that his professional career is threatened by investigations conducted by his astonishingly seductive wife, Tessa, who has launched a crusade against international drug companies operating in Africa.  Over a decade his junior, “Tessa was that rarest thing: a lawyer who believes in justice.”  Even more problematic for Justin, she is  “a young woman …unable to cross the road without first taking a moral view.”  

Justin acknowledges their disparate roles with the homiletic “She follows her conscience, I get on with my job.”  However, what he can’t ignore is her public relationship with “Arnold Bluhm, M.D., the adopted Congolese son of a wealthy Belgian mining couple, educated Kinshasa, Brussels and the Sorbonne, medical monk, denizen of war zones, selfless healer of Algiers.”   Blum was “the Westerner’s African, bearded Apollo of the Nairobi cocktail round, charismatic, witty, beautiful.”  And, if the whispers are to be believed, Tessa’s lover.

Together, Tessa and Blum set out to expose the open secret that “Africa is the pharmaceutical dustbin of the world.”  They focus on the African clinical trials of dypraxa, a supposed wonder drug against TB, since, “in Kenya, as in other African countries, the incidence of tuberculosis has increased fourfold since the onset of the HIV virus.”

For their pains, they are eliminated in a horrible incident that British diplomats rush to make appear an accident.  Justin understands instinctively that the pair were murdered, and the second half of the novel follows Justin, who is chased by both the agents of the drug companies and the British government as he seeks to establish the truth behind Tessa’s death.

His search leads him to learn that three issues surround the clinical trials:

“Issue one: the side effects are being deliberately concealed in the interest of profit. Issue two: the world’s poorest communities are used as guinea pigs by the world’s richest, Issue three: legitimate scientific debate of these issues is stifled by corporate intimidation.”

As we’ve grown to expect, le Carré’s theme is once again the difficulty of acting morally, not from lack of character, but from the overwhelming complexity of the world.  Just as reliably, the Le Carré hero has a concern more profound than his ethical commitment to his profession.  Deep in the recesses of his proper English heart is his love for a woman--a love so deep, so abiding, so romantic as to be incomprehensible to the corrupt “sophisticates” who surround him.  Justin’s unspoken allegiance to Tessa’s memory grips the reader just as surely as his desire to expose the preventable and cynical deaths of thousands of innocent Africans.

Although le Carré takes pains to present his work as fiction, journalists have made it clear (most recently in a series in The Washington Post) that his story of the reprehensible devotion of drug companies to windfall profits over blameless lives is painfully accurate.  The Constant Gardner exposes an ugly secret in which, knowingly or not, we are all complicit.