Volume > Issue > The Constant Gardener. By John le Carré.

The Constant Gardener. By John le Carré.

LITERATURE MATTERS

By Michael S. Rose | September 2020
Michael S. Rose is Associate Editor of the NOR.

Beautiful, wealthy, and well-educated, Tessa Quayle is a kind of young and flirtatious Mother Teresa with a big heart for the poorest of the world. She is also a whistleblower who has witnessed a monstrous injustice and has fought it with a quixotic zeal that gets her brutally murdered in the opening pages of The Constant Gardener (2001), John le Carré’s morality tale about profiteering pharmaceutical companies that use poor and desperate black Africans as guinea pigs for their clinical trials. “Tessa was murdered to keep her quiet,” says one insider in her testimony to police. “Anyone who takes on the pharmaceutical industry is liable to get her throat cut. Some pharmaceutical companies are arms dealers in shining raiment.”

Africa, Tessa discovers in the years leading up to her death, is “the pharma dustbin of the world,” where white self-styled humanitarians are ripping off the poorest nations. “Every time I hear a pharma justifying its actions on the grounds of Humanity, Altruism, Duty to Mankind, I want to vomit,” says Tessa. The multibillion-dollar pharmaceutical industry is, instead, inspired by what another character aptly calls “the god Profit.” It’s not about offering charitable, humanitarian relief to those most in need, says Tessa; it’s “an irresponsible quest for corporate profit,” under the cover of what the world often calls humanitarianism. It sacrifices the poor of Africa for the so-called greater good of the American and European markets, where billions stand to be reaped.

Justin Quayle, the widower whom Tessa leaves behind, is a mid-level foreign-service officer at the British High Commission in Nairobi, Kenya. Tessa kept busy helping the poor and carrying out her crusade against Big Pharma, unbeknownst to her husband, a happy skeptic in a straw hat, who weeds and prunes his way through flowerbeds, worried about keeping them sandy enough to grow his yellow freesias. But Justin’s studied ignorance soon transforms into moral purpose. The novel chronicles his quest through England, Italy, Canada, Sudan, and back to Kenya to unmask his wife’s murderers. In the process, he takes up Tessa’s cause to expose the amoral Swiss-Canadian pharmaceutical giant Karel Vita Hudson (KVH) and ThreeBees, its distributor in Africa. In doing so, he falls afoul of the British Foreign Office, which, it turns out, has been complicit all along.

In response to his rogue investigation, Justin’s former colleagues accuse him of chasing conspiracy theories. “If you can’t deal with reality,” says his former boss Sandy Woodrow, “then dream up a conspiracy. What precise conspiracy Justin has dreamed up — and where we come into it, we in the High Commission — whether we’re in league with the freemasons, or the Jesuits, or the Ku Klux Klan, or the World Bank — I’m afraid I can’t enlighten you.” Woodrow, of course, is concerned that Justin has hit the “conspiracy trail” because Woodrow himself is part of the problem, and the best way to discredit a man who risks exposing you is to consign him to the rank of conspiracy theorist. During Woodrow’s interview with Scotland Yard after Tessa’s death, one insightful investigator turns to him and says, “People like you should be stopped. You think you’re solving the world’s problems but actually you’re the problem.”

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