Friday, 4 October 2002
John le Carré: The Constant Gardener
Review number: 1121
One of the major issues that faces our generation, one which receives relatively little publicity and which seems quite intractable, is how large corporations can be controlled by public opinion, particularly their operations in Third World countries desperate for money. Stockholders continue to put short term profits ahead of other concerns - such as humanitarian and environmental ones - and are frequently able to exert considerable pressure even on the American government to be allowed to do whatever they want. (The US attitude to the recent environment conference in Johannesburg is a good example, and this year's accounting scandals show that blatant and illegal lying to maintain share prices has been an accepted part of some corporate culture.)
The Constant Gardener is set mainly amoung the diplomatic community in Kenya. There, the British High Commission is hit by a scandal when the wife of a junior diplomat is found with her throat cut while on a drive from a safari resort. What at first sight seems to be a violent robbery soon turns out to be something more sinister; the drive was to visit Richard Leakey, newly appointed to the Kenyan cabinet so that Arup Moi could be seen to be trying to deal with the corruption of the regime, and Tess had been gathering evidence about the wrongdoing of a Western drug company which she wanted to present to Leakey as someone who might be willing to act on the information. Orders rapidly arrive from the Foreign Office in London to drop any investigation of this side of things, but Tessa's husband Justin wants to find out just what she had discovered that was so important that the company involved would consider ordering a "hit" on her.
Le Carré's diagnosis of corruption is not just confined to Kenya, but stretches right back to Europe and North America, exposing such practises as attempts by pharmaceutical companies to take control of university researchers (via large donations) and thus the journals which contain the reports made of drug trials. In the case invented by le Carré, the problem is not that the drug is no good (it is a spectacular cure for TB), but that the proper tests have been hurried and the drug at present has potentially fatal side effects.
John le Carré is not the first writer to take up the theme of corporate sleaze; it is easy to see most cyberpunk as warnings about what might happen if nothing is done, and it is more explicitly addressed in Ben Elton's Stark, a novel which I found almost unreadable. The Constant Gardener is the most convincing and enjoyable thriller I have read on the subject, and feels like a real call to action.