Title: The Constant Gardener
Author: John le Carré
Le Carré, John (2001). The Constant Gardener: A Novel. New York: Scribner
PR6062.E33 C66 2001
- International business enterprises–Corrupt practices–Fiction.
- Corporations–Corrupt practices–Fiction.
Date Posted: January 7, 2017
January 7, 2001
Review by Rand Richards Cooper
A minor British functionary in Kenya, the hero of John le Carré’s novel is spurred to action after his wife is murdered.
Americans have spent the first post-Cold-War decade peering through the mists of our new isolationism and wondering whom to worry about out there. Few have been more ready with suggestions than John le Carré. Charting the breakup of the Soviet Union (Our Game), reporting on arms merchants (The Night Manager) and money-laundering drug kingpins (Single & Single), the master of the spy thriller has matched pace with the headlines, keeping us apprised of our next new enemy. And so The Constant Gardener, le Carré’s 18th novel, looks like a departure. It takes us to an Africa that has fallen off the West’s map, and to a rueful coterie of Brits idling away in “dangerous, decaying, plundered” Kenya, where grave-digging thieves steal wedding rings off the corpses of the wealthy, and a “safe haven” isn’t a shelter for spies but rather your bedroom, closed off from below by a steel security door.
The gardener of the title is Justin Quayle, an officer at the British High Commission and one of those supremely English characters who embrace being a cog in the machinery of government with a fanatical resignation. Justin has reached middle age with no ambition beyond tending his flower garden, and little use of his intellect beyond fashioning sophistical diplomatic arguments for inaction in the face of injustice. His much younger wife, Tessa, on the other hand, is a society girl turned Oxbridge-trained lawyer and zealous missionary to the poor–Mother Teresa of the Nairobi Slums,” one newspaper calls her, the “Angel Who Gave a Damn.” Tessa has a soul-mate friend, a Belgian-African doctor named Arnold Bluhm; and when she turns up dead, and Bluhm vanishes, Justin at first bows to the notion of an affair gone terribly awry. But what about the tire marks of a vehicle trailing the one Tessa died in, or a pair of rough-looking men seen at a nearby lodge the previous night?
Justin begins to look into Tessa’s work, particularly her inquiries into a new antituberculosis drug, Dypraxa, rushed to market despite serious side effects–with Africans serving as medical guinea pigs. Back in London, his boss at the Foreign Office dismisses the idea of a conspiracy behind Tessa’s death. “I’m an Oswald man,” he says, making a case for “accepting the obvious.” But when someone breaks into Justin’s house and documents go missing, it becomes clear that being an Oswald man won’t do. Soon we’re into false passports, threats and skulduggery on three continents, evil pharmaceutical giants and a global holocaust waiting in the wings. So this is the old le Carré after all.
Or is it? Despite the intrigues, the story le Carré really wants to tell has little to do with cloaks and daggers. The novel follows Justin on the trail of Tessa’s muckraking activities, a “huge plunge into the heart of her secret world” meant to atone for the years in which, as a “fully paid-up pessimist,” he disdained her causes and commitments. After sleepwalking through life as “a sweet chap passionately interested in nothing except phlox, asters, freesias and gardenias,” Justin now pledges himself to nurturing the flower of his wife’s idealism. Le Carré pushes this metaphor as far as it will go, and then some.
The Constant Gardener inhabits a moral universe far less murky than the precincts of ambiguity where le Carré made his name. Gone are the customary moral and psychological chiaroscuro, and the difficult father-son relationships embodied in such emblematic protagonists as Magnus Pym, Jonathan Pine and Oliver Simple; instead of a spy’s angst-ridden faith in a spymaster father figure we get a neophyte spy’s celebration of a dead wife who dreamed of bringing “common decency to a wicked world” and was “young enough to believe there is such a thing as simple truth.”
The old le Carré was animated by an abiding pessimism about simple truths. This is the writer who rescued the spy novel from the clutches of Ian Fleming by creating an anti-James Bond–the spy as brooding skeptic, whose freedom from conventional mores conferred not playboy romance but the loneliness of exile. Espionage served as a trope for basic human secrecy: the enemy was not outside us but within, and the Cold War afforded “no victory and no virtue,” as le Carré once said in an interview, but merely “a condition of human illness and a political misery.” To this le Carré, ultimate distinctions between good and evil remained stubbornly elusive, and individual humanity stood dwarfed by vast ideological and bureaucratic systems. Novels like The Spy Who Came In From the Cold emanated a dark futility, eased, but never mitigated, by personal sympathies extended across lines–the Hardyesque recognition that a mere flip of fate’s coin distinguished you from your doppelg [sic]. The new globalism le Carré takes on in this novel, on the other hand, might be called the war of the pretty bad against the potentially pretty good; and moral ambivalence recedes apace. In The Constant Gardener, illness is no mere metaphor, but a crime perpetuated by corporate profitmongers cultivating a “TB market” where “billions and billions of dollars are waiting to be earned.” Devils and angels face off in what le Carré calls, in a plangent author’s note, “individual conscience in conflict with corporate greed.” Reviewing A Perfect Spy here in 1986, Frank Conroy noted the many Dickensian qualities of le Carré’s fiction, along with one big difference: Dickens, unlike the bleaker le Carré, “loved the world and believed that things could be done (in his novels as in his life) to make it a better place.” Taking up a raging ethical debate about medical research protocols in developing countries, The Constant Gardener reveals a new and far more Dickensian le Carré. In places it feels like a running strategy-and-information session for global activism. “The modern pharmaceutical industry is only 65 years old,” a former associate of Tessa’s explains to Justin. “It has good men and women, it has achieved human and social miracles, but its collective conscience is not developed.”
Helping the modern pharmaceutical industry develop its collective conscience is an eminently laudable aim; but does it play as a novel? The Constant Gardener begins well, mustering exotic background detail, like the crowded Matutu taxis careering through the streets of Nairobi, while characters in the foreground conduct the intensely British rites of diplomatic life, where careers are spent perfecting a meretricious chumminess over lunch while twisting the knife in, old chap. Le Carré is a superb moralist of the quotidian, a master at showing how our humdrum daily dealings with spouses and colleagues reveal us–like Sandy Woodrow, Justin’s superior at the High Commission, a man whose thoughts about his own wife run to gratitude “for the restful way in which she failed to read his inner thoughts, yet pliantly shaped herself to fit his aspirations.” This is the Foreign Office personality at its nastiest, mixing cowardice, calculation and smug complacency: an old-boy, Eton-Oxbridge-Whitehall pathology le Carré knows inside out.
Once he takes on the story of Tessa, however, the novel begins to wobble. The Constant Gardener makes some ungainly narrative moves, using whole chapters of police interrogation to establish basic plot points, and dishing out boatloads of documents for us to sort through. The effort hints at another kind of book altogether–namely, investigative journalism–and as we follow Justin’s search for the truth, The Constant Gardener feels ever more like an exposé, an angry diatribe against corporate malfeasance, adorned with sentimental descriptions of Tessa and her courageous actions (“the cold-eyed lawyer in her . . . decided to ignore a death threat rather than imperil her quest for justice”) that fall far below the subtle insights of le Carré at his best.
It’s not that a novelist can’t also enlighten and exhort. But where in Dickens the desire to improve the real world–to weigh in on the subject of debtors’ prisons or child labor in factories–never interfered with creating a supremely inviting fictional world, one senses an impatience in The Constant Gardener, as if le Carré were chafing in his eagerness to have us admire his heroine as he does, to get us to believe. Taking sides with the angels, his novel unabashedly wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s almost enough to make you long for the old Cold War bleakness and ambiguity.
 Rand Richards Cooper, “Company Man,” New York Times (Dec. 19, 2000). Rand Richards Cooper is the author of The Last to Go: A Family Chronicle and a collection of stories, Big as Life.