Thursday, June 11, 2015
The Constant Gardenar
The plot was vaguely based on a real-life case in Kano, Nigeria. The book was adapted as a movie by the same name in 2005.
In medias res is where they say you should always start. John le Carré's latest novel does just that, as news comes to the British High Commission in Nairobi that human-rights activist Tessa Quayle has been murdered - butchered - up in northern Kenya. We are soon in the morgue. Her husband Justin, also First Secretary at the High Commission, is faced with identifying her severed head: "Her eyes closed and eyebrows raised and mouth open in lolling disbelief, black blood caked inside as if she'd had all her teeth pulled at the same time. You? she is blowing stupidly as they kill her, her mouth formed into an oo. You? "
Handsome, diffident Justin (the "constant gardener" of the title) at first appears not quite up to the task of tracking down her killers. As his colleague Sandy Woodrow puts it to the pair of British police who come over to investigate the murder, Justin "loves nothing better than toiling in the flowerbeds on a Saturday afternoon - a gentleman , whatever that means - the right sort of Etonian, courteous to a fault ...".
It turns out that diffidence can be a powerful attribute when you are surrounded by scoundrels. At first Justin simply hides out in the house of one such, the very same Sandy. A slug of a man who used to ogle the beautiful Tessa, Sandy even sent her a love note in a moment of weakness. Now his own wife Gloria has taken a fancy to the grieving adult schoolboy (for so Justin initially seems) hiding in their guest suite: "What are you doing down there? she wondered. Are you lying on your bed flailing yourself in the darkness? Or are you staring through your bars into the garden, talking to her ghost?"
The interior monologue of that passage is very typical of the way le Carré will let us have a bit of each character without losing his main focus. It is, however, mostly Justin's ghost-talking that we listen to, as his quest takes him to Elba (home of Tessa's Italian family), northern Germany, central Canada and south Sudan. And these aren't the only territories where classic le Carré tropes of betrayal and counter-betrayal can be turned and turned again. Another is cyberspace. There is much up-to-date business with computers here, including a neat twist with a virus.
mericans 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.
As the world seems to move ever further beyond the comparatively clear-cut choices of the Cold War into a moral morass in which greed and cynicism seem the prime movers, le Carr 's work has become increasingly radical, and this is by far his most passionately angry novel yet. Its premise is similar to that of Michael Palmer's Miracle CureDcynical pharmaceutical firm allied with devious doctors attempts to foist on the world a flawed but potentially hugely profitable drugDbut the difference is in the setting and the treatment. Le Carr has placed the prime action in Africa, where the drug is being surreptitiously tested on poor villagers. Tessa Quayle, married to a member of the British High Commission staff in corruption-riddled contemporary Kenya, gets wind of it and tries in vain to blow the whistle on the manufacturer and its smarmy African distributor. She is killed for her pains. At this point Justin Quayle, her older, gentlemanly husband, sets out to find out who killed her, and to stop the dangerous drug himselfDat a terrible cost. Le Carr 's manifold skills at scene-setting and creating a range of fearsomely convincing English characters, from the bluffly absurd to the irredeemably corrupt, are at their smooth peak here. Both The Tailor of Panama and Single & Single were feeling their way toward this wholehearted assault on the way the world works, by a man who knows much better than most novelists writing today how it works. Now subject and style are one, and the result is heart-wrenching. (Jan. 9) Forecast: Admirers of the author who may have found some of the moral ambiguities and overelaborate set pieces of his last two books less than top-drawer le Carr will welcome a return to his best form. There is a wonderfully charismatic and idealistic heroine, which will bolster female readership, and the appearance of the book shortly after the release of a movie of Tailor (starring Jamie Lee Curtis) is bound to create an extra rush of media attention. Be prepared for the biggest le Carr sales in years.