The Constant Gardener by John le Carré
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
John LeCarré here sets in motion a dozen or more morally and psychologically complex characters in many directions at once, leading into three major stories and at least a half a dozen lesser ones. The framing story is about Big Pharma, the enormously wealthy multinational pharmaceutical companies which can cure you or kill you to make a profit, and the people who try to be sure they do mostly good things and curb its corrupt tendencies. The second is an adventure story of a lone man, the "constant gardener"of the title, using his wits against an enormous conspiracy with deadly power — much like LeCarré's famous intelligence operative George Smiley, but here the enemy is not Iron Curtain spy rings but Big Pharma, which has killed his wife. Finally, and here the subtlety and complexity of LeCarré's imagination is best displayed, there is the story of divided loyalties, virtue and weakness and ultimately self-betrayal, exhibited to some degree by several characters but especially by the gifted, deeply religious and morally confused Markus Lorbeer.
LeCarré's fictional DKV, with enormous financial resources and political influence, hopes to make millions from an anti-TB drug created by a smaller partner based in Kenya, and is willing to bribe or otherwise pressure doctors, scientific journals, hospitals and regulators to get it approved and paid for with public money; meanwhile the operation in Kenya is testing the drug on Kenya's poor, not necessarily a bad thing if there are adequate safeguards. But there are not: with the complicity of government officials and common thugs, the companies suppress information about the drug's sometimes lethal side-effects and even go to the extreme of murdering those who are about to expose their practice.
Besides the psychologically complex characterizations, LeCarré offers vivid descriptions of both social and physical settings in Kenya, London, Elba and even Winnipeg. The book is seldom boring. But there are too many implied stories left unresolved, the "constant gardener" who occupies most of the story, Justin Quayle, seems far less interesting than many of the minor characters whom we glimpse too briefly (including Markus Lorbeer) or never see at all because they are dead before the story begins (Quayle's wife Tessa and the good doctor Arnold Bluhm), and the central story — the denunciation of bad practices of some pharmaceutical companies — is hardly news.
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