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Guide at the intersection of capital and chaos

By John le Carré
Scribner, 492 pages, $28


“As I write, news is coming in of the death of John Kaiser, an American priest from Minnesota who worked in Kenya for the last 36 years.” These startling words come in the closing “Author’s Note” in John le Carré’s The Constant Gardener. NCR’s John Allen picked up the thread of le Carré’s words in the closing section of his moving testimonial to the church community in Africa, “Faith, Hope and Heroes” (NCR, Feb. 23). There, Allen completed le Carré’s brief sentence when he wrote the story of Fr. Kaiser’s life and yet unsolved murder.

The Constant Gardener is a timely arrival. In this, his latest novel, le Carré turns to the Third World and the multinational pharmaceutical industry and creates a new protagonist, a worthy successor to his earlier hero George Smiley, who reflects the new moral struggles at the heart of the post Cold War world.

Only a year ago a handful of ACT-UP demonstrators at Vice President Gore’s presidential campaign announcement thrust the issue of pharmaceuticals in the Third World into the national spotlight. Their constant dogging of the vice president’s campaign led the Clinton administration to back off from its support of the pharmaceutical industry’s efforts to maintain its profits and protect its patents on HIV/AIDS drugs in South Africa. In the interval, The Washington Post, in a series of front page articles on drug testing in the developing world and Eastern Europe, addressed the issues le Carré exposes in The Constant Gardener.

Le Carré weaves three essential story elements, drug development and testing in developing countries, corruption in Kenya and the politics of embassy and foreign office life, into an absorbing tale. Indeed, it is the last element that leavens the mix and transforms what otherwise might be a dry exposé into a powerful novel.

Those of us who may have lived on the fringes of a diplomatic community will recognize many of the main players and scenes in this drama. The innuendo and gossip of the isolated expatriate community feed the ambition and betrayals that drive the story forward.

The novel unfolds from the discovery in the Kenyan lake district of the corpse of Tessa Quayle, the wife of a British diplomat posted to the High Commission in Nairobi. Justin Quayle, the constant gardener of the title, appears as a faintly distracted, older husband, who endures quietly the chronic rumors of his young, beautiful wife’s infidelity. He evokes George Smiley, whose unfaithful wife Ann haunted le Carré’s early novels. Like Smiley, Quayle suffers these rumors without demur. Unlike Smiley’s situation, it is not altogether clear that Tessa Quayle has betrayed her husband.

The decapitated corpse of Tessa Quayle’s driver is discovered at the scene. Missing is her companion, Dr. Arnold Bluhm, a mysterious, charismatic, Belgian-educated Congolese doctor who runs a nongovernmental organization that monitors international aid programs in Africa. Dr. Bluhm is supposed by many to be one of Tessa’s lovers. Scotland Yard sends out two young detectives to investigate and they initially focus on Justin. Justin withdraws from the life of the diplomatic community and disappears.

Surreptitiously, Justin undertakes his own investigation of his wife’s murder, spurred on by his deep love for her and his remorse at not having paid closer attention to her volunteer work with women’s groups in Nairobi’s slums and with Dr. Bluhm’s organization. He wades through the undercurrent of his wife’s supposed infidelity, steadfast in his belief in her faithfulness. Justin slowly unravels the trail of his wife’s work. The trail takes him from Kenya to London, to Italy, Elba, northern Germany, Saskatchewan and back to Kenya.

Le Carré’s narrative invention is on full display as Tessa’s murder and Dr. Bluhm’s disappearance are deciphered through interrogations, documents, e-mail and personal confrontation. Though we may sense where he is headed, we are pulled along by the deepening portrayal of Justin and his belated commitment to his wife’s work.

Ultimately, as with all of le Carré’s work, this is a tale of faith, betrayal and love and it draws on the themes of his early novels. For some us who grew up in the shadow of the Soviet threat, le Carré was a constant guide. George Smiley, the unlikely hero of le Carré’s earliest novels and his greatest creation, reflected the ambiguous moral world at the heart of the Cold War. In this new novel, le Carré has given us a new guide and perhaps reveals more than intended of the intersection of capital and chaos.

By the end of the story, the full import of the title is apparent, for Justin Quayle is constant; he stands firm in his faith in his wife and in Dr. Bluhm’s integrity. He is constant in the sense that the church describes her martyrs as constant. John Allen quoted martyred Congolese Archbishop Christophe Munzihirwa’s favorite saying: “There are things that can be seen only with eyes that have cried.” Justin Quayle would, no doubt, share that wisdom.

John Olinger lives, works and reads in Washington.

National Catholic Reporter, June 1, 2001