Le Carre Takes On A New Evil Empire


By John Le Carre

Scribner -- 492pp -- $28

For this reviewer's money, John Le Carre's masterpiece, the novel that towers above his other 17, is now a decade-and-a-half behind him. When he published A Perfect Spy in 1986, the English master of cold war espionage gave us as fine a balance of plot and character as he's ever likely to achieve. Magnus Pym, the wayward spook whose rise and fall Le Carre charts from childhood to his final demise, is an original. And as dedicated Le Carre readers know, Pym's story reflected the author's relationship with his own father. This was a story from the heart, not the headlines. Almost from the beginning, it was clear that Le Carre had produced that rare thing--a genre novel that transcends its genre, becoming something close to great literature.

Is this to say that Le Carre has been hiking downhill ever since? Let's say instead that since A Perfect Spy, he has chosen to write from the solid middle of his considerable talent, as opposed to its forward edge. And let's say, too, that his new novel, The Constant Gardener, ranks with The Russia House (1989) as the best he has produced since hitting his peak. If this new book is craft rather than art, it is craft of the very highest caliber. It is no mean feat to entertain while also making a reader think. Yet Le Carre pulls this off admirably, weaving together several themes--corporate power, underdevelopment, globalization--that will resonate with a wide audience.

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 whole 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 Carre writes in describing the view of things from the boardroom in Basel. "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."

The Constant Gardener is plot-heavy in the classic Le Carre mold. It is also an unabashedly political novel. And the "pharmas," as the drug giants are called, are merely the most specific of numerous targets on Le Carre's list. Indeed, these corporations take the rap for obeisance to "the profit god," the "self-perpetuating cycle of corruption and poverty," "the inhumanity of self-styled humanitarians who are ripping off the poorest nations," and much more. You could legitimately call Le Carre's true subject here the whole of the post-cold-war order--globalism, in a word. "Better to be inside the system and fighting it than outside the system, howling at it," says one of Tessa's admirers, recalling her most basic belief. And you sense that Le Carre shares it--along with the assumption that "the system" is fundamentally in need of a fight.

Beneath the politics, however, we find the conflict between individuals and their institutional identities that runs through more or less all of Le Carre's novels. Justin Quayle, diplomat and suddenly a widower, is the constant gardener referred to in Le Carre's title: He's complacent in his dedication to the ethos of the British Foreign Office. But as Justin jettisons his Etonian manners in order to pursue his late wife's cause, he joins Le Carre's other renegades in revolt against their circumstances. At its core, then, 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.

It's a heavy load for a story spun around a drug company that cheats. Indeed, there are moments in The Constant Gardener when many readers may wonder whether Le Carre will ever fully succeed in retooling the fictional machinery he developed in all those much-admired tales of cold war espionage. Those novels seemed suited to a black hats/white hats universe, but that notion comes across as a touch simplistic here.

Moreover, Le Carre's characters, while precisely drawn, are essentially stock figures: deceitful diplomats, oily corporate executives, a droopy-eyed spook off in the shadows, a mad scientist. As for Tessa, she never quite touches the ground. Beautiful, brilliant, rich, and impossibly pure of heart, she might as well have angel's wings.

That said, I could hardly bear to put The Constant Gardener down. One does get drawn into Le Carre's plots, and this one I found especially provocative. It's eye-opening, to say the least, to find a novelist of Le Carre's intelligence and stature writing so bluntly about the many questions facing our globalized world. From this perspective, I applaud The Constant Gardener without reservation. We are all Justin Quayle, Le Carre seems to suggest. We are each enmeshed in moral dilemmas--our age seems to have more than its share--and we have a duty to resolve them, whether we accept that responsibility or not.

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