Dear friends and readers,
I’m again turning a lecture for my students into a blog for their use and what I hope is its interest to anyone who has read LeCarre’s masterpiece novel, The Constant Gardener, or Fernando Mereilles’s equally great film adaptation (with a little help from Jeffrey Caine for the screenplay, Simon Channing-Williams for production, and very many great actors and technical people).
Speaking generally first, in the feature to the film on DVD, LeCarre said he wanted to present what the ruthlessness of unqualified capitalism backed by military since the fall of communism and defeat of socialist movements. He did not want to deal directly with this perspective as it would be “too much on the nose,” too direct, too preachy, so he chose the way the medical world and industries operate as a metaphor for this new world.
First the novel. What John LeCarre did that was remarkable was to endow the detective and spy story with serious political content for the first time. They are not frivolous Agatha Christie or Sherlock Holmes stories. They mirror the human condition in the world’s marketplaces, at business and how these deform personal relationships. He made the popular form carry serious weight. Before hand and still you read of Sherlock Holmes, Agatha Christie, and now again frivolous or fun kinds of spy and detective and gothic stories. LeCarre turns our appetite for violence and strangeness and vicarious fear to account.
With The Constant Gardener in 2001, LeCarre turned to Africa and asks himself what happens when there is no opponent to capitalism and militarism. No one on the other side with any effective power. I put on our website, his short article “Congo Journey” about a trip to the Congo (long history of colonialism, corruption, torture, terrible working conditions for masses of people driven to it) which lies behind his most recent book, Mission Song. The reality of ruthlessly set up drug trials forced on people, and the two LeCarre has in mind in The Constant Gardener, see Marcia Angell’s “Body Hunters.”
That’s the scenario posed in the book. In recent New York Times article LeCarre affirmed “a fascination with what will happen to capitalism now that there’ s no opponent.” So what is the moral landscape of a world where we have no effective counter: So his recent books look at the new globalization at it most ruthless — where human life is merely a research tool, and the most vulnerable among us are the most expendable.
One of the areas where you can get drama from this which affects people is Medicine. And hypocrisies most strong too. Much as we acknowledge the monetary underbelly to it, we shudder at the prospect that access to, or quality of, care could be compromised by so crass a consideration as finances. It’s intimidating enough to be sick and left without any alternative but to place your trust in someone else’s expertise and compassion. A pill or operation is a sale.
You don’t have to formulate it politically or given this political parties: we’re talking about utter selfishness. Mass wilful blindness to the harm caused to others in the relentless pursuit of these goals. Complicity is widely shared.
The pharmaceutical industry may be le Carre’s most unsavoury antagonist yet because of our delusion — duly encouraged by the pharmas themselves — that profits are merely a happy afterthought, an unintended (if not unwelcome) consequence of helping people.
LeCarre’s outlook in this book: Le Carré seems bleak about the chances of any such reform. At the end of the novel, both Quayles are dead, no one is called to account, and KVH and all the people who serve its interests in and out of government presumably continue undeterred. The film, however, adds a Hollywood-style hint of justice to come.
LeCarre’s afterword, pp. 557-60. Of course this is no individual, firm, much less any governemental agency. He also makes it clear, however, that he is obliged to say this “in these dog days when lawyers rule the universe.”
People getting killed to ensure silence and protect corporate earnings? “I am sure people have died,” LeCarre offered in an interview with the London Times. Furthermore, in the author’s note to the novel he wrote, “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”
The characters. Quayles: they are the birds so easy to kill when one goes shooting; pellegrin makes us think of peregrine, a vulture. Justin, the just man, Tessa, or St Teresa. Arnold Bluhm — bloom, a Christ figure. Sandy is every man; he and his wife, Gloria are US, trying to make it in life and ignore what goes on around them. Tim a mock spy; Ghita the person forced to give up older culture and Americanize herself, modernize self to stay afloat. Kenny Curtis is not that far an exaggeration of crude thug; Crick better. Hangers on. Story shows the evil doers getting away with it. No poetic justice.
Unreliable narrator is someone whose judgement we don’t trust because their ethics or morality is skewed. They can be a good person (say Miss Bearing in Wit, she is an unreliable narrator) or a bad one Woodrow is intended to be an Everyman so complicit that he is bad. People like him allow evil to go forth; so too Gloria. They are US, us. We are supposed to recognize ourselves in Sandy Woodrow and Gloria, ordinary people trying to get a promotion, advancement, live luxuriously and easily.
Bad guys (really bad) include believable types: Sir Kenny Curtis, rough man at the head of a company that does business in hard parts of the world, Bernard Pellegrin (peregrin vulture) the civil servant man who rises high and does what’s necessary; Crick, the hired thug who probably led the group who raped and murdered Tessa and tortured and murdered Arnold.
Some real people outlined by Angell and again in script book. Other real people: Todd Hoffman’s “Constant Writer”: the characters of Tessa Quayle and Lara Emrich resemble Yvette Pierpaoli and Dr Nancy Olivieri. The book is dedicated to Yvette Pierpaoli who was killed in Vietnam.
Dr Nancy Olivieir who blew the whistle in 1993 against the drug deferiprone while at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children. Lara was under contract to conduct research for KVH, but bound by a confidentiality clause against revealing anything negative she might turn up. Dr Olivieri, too, was restricted by such a clause, but violated it to publicize the negative side effects of the drug in The New England Journal of Medicine. Like Emrich, Olivieri was the recipient of menacing anonymous communications. She is now unemployed. While I was in Canada, there was a news-story about two top editors fired from an important medical journal: they had been reporting on the real side effects and political campaigns about the after morning pill.
vette Pierpaoli, a tireless relief worker he met back in the 1970S when he traveled Indochina gathering material for The Honourable Schoolboy. Along with her husband, Pierpaoli ran a trading company, the profits from which she poured into aiding the sick, the starving, and the stateless. In an article for The New Yorker, he claims that she, “like almost no one else, had opened my eyes to constructive compassion, to putting your money and your life where your heart was.” Although, like Tessa, Pierpaoli would die prematurely — in a car accident while helping refugees in Albania. Probably an accident.
Beyond the ease with which you can find parallels (collusions in bureaucracy, destruction of reports — Feynman had quite a time nursing Appendix F along remember — Pellegrin simply destroys Tessa and Bluhm’s 16 page report. You don’t need specific individuals. People like them for reasons I suspect: then they can absolve themselves.
The themes. Beyond the drug matter. Point of view is Justin’s. This makes the story very effective; not only is it done through what comes next and revelation, but we see things through characters who don’t know everything. Point of view: first person, third person. Angle you see the book at counts. He makes use of dramatic irony (you say one thing and mean another), dramatic irony (you know things the character doesn’t — this makes the book rich on the second reading when you see all the ironies; the first depends on suspense); and plot-design irony: no poetic justice at the end; the ending seems perverse or unjust. All three
intermingle. Justin, Tessa through her emails on the computer, Sandy Woodrow.
Central theme of LeCarre’s fiction is betrayal, that it’s not possible to act honorably: his father was a shady businessman who went to prison for fraud; enrolled in elite British schools.
Did Tessa betray Justin in some deeper way. She was not physically unfaithful, but was she morally alienated from him. Does not she turn to Ham for things we expect she might turn to her husband for? He lets her. She emotionally betrays him with Arnold. Did she use him? She doesn’t think through things.
Like Graham Greene, John LeCarre is hard to pinpoint politically . He does write spy fiction and has his characters sacrifice themselves for larger causes like one’s country. Is that what Tessa is doing? She never sees she is asserting herself too. So she’s an ambiguous heroine
It may not be betrayal to let your partner go off on his or her own. After all we are a modern society and people don’t own one another because they are married or in the same family. That’s an imprisoning older idea, though one still made explicit in traditional societies (where people inside a family will murder a member if they think she — it is mostly she — has shamed the family)); and is implicit in many people’s minds even our modern world. We assume we owe something to our family and they owe a lot to us. The US government treats individuals financially as if they are part of a family group.
In the case at hand, there’s some extra or other things going as part of the story. First Tessa is keeping secrets from Justin, secrets which endanger her and are about his job. He sense this but ignores it because partly it’s so difficult to cope with. All his life he has retreated from confrontation and told himself he was doing some good. By her keeping secrets from him which affect him she is disrespecting him (I think) especially since her behavior leads to other people despising him as a man whose wife has lovers. She ought to care about that (I think); she ought to realize he is humiliated. We cannot live apart from the people around us and pretend their attitudes towards us don’t count. So here is her betrayal of him. As to his of her, it’s a little harder I agree, but he seems to feel guilty. He has the old-fashioned male idea he’s supposed to protect her, but we could say when you love someone you ought to care about them and try to intervene to protect them. He did not do that.
In the book, and according to the actor Ralph Fiennes, Justin Quayle feels he did not love Tessa enough until after she dies and he discovers what she was doing.
Spying in a network becomes a metaphor for how people treat one another in the commercial marketplace; what is the tenuous nature of their relationship, and what they are willing to do to one another and so doing to themselves. How we are forced to betray who we are, what our original culture is to get on in the world (Ghita character, old world India in the book)
Like Conrad, the theme of the “secret sharer” is part of this novel’s skein. There is another self or other selves we keep repressed and don’t know about, but if we face him or her, we can become stronger for it. I suppose that’s an optimistic point of view. I don’t know that anyone in the novel becomes stronger for facing who or what they are. Sandy tries, but moves away. Maybe that’s why we can like him some. He doesn’t make love to his employment in the way of Bernard Pellegrin. Crick is a silent animal, and Kenny Curtis a loud-mouthed one.
According to Hoffman, regret a binding theme in LeCarre’s work and we see it here. Justin, of course, regrets all. Immense suicidal depression. Looks back on his career too as a total naive preoccupation . He thought he was pessimistic, but he wasn’t pessimistic enough. Sandy has a marriage that leaves him anxious for alternatives that don’t exist. In a letter he ought never to have sent, he has proclaimed his undying love to Tessa, and would surely regret treating her cause in so cowardly a fashion. Markus Lorbeer, who has been instrumental in marketing Dypraxa to ThreeBees, regrets how his actions have amounted to a sin against God and condemns himself to an aid outpost in southern Sudan as penance. Rob and Lesley of Scotland Yard regret being stonewalled and subsequently removed from the investigation into Tessa’s murder, their careers in shambles for failing to comprehend that they were never meant to solve the case. The aged and ill British intelligence man in Nairobi, Tim Donahue, finds that his “only regret, looking back, was that he had spent so little of his life on kids’ football, and so much of it on spies.” But this is verbal irony: he too like Justin regrets all, but is not in suicidal despair over what he sees. Only when it’s already too late do most of us recognize how skewed our priorities somehow become when we’re not looking. And then we have to live with ourselves as best we can.
In search of lost time by Proust is about retrieving time; LeCarre shows characters not able to retrieve time or the past.
Only Tessa and Arnold could be — or deserve to be — free of regret. They saw a wrong and worked relentlessly to redress it, until they paid the ultimate price. In so doing, they have assumed a responsibility that we might hope our governments would take on — but they hope in vain. The people running our government or the drug companies as presented here are acting out of their financial interest or have abdicated, leaving us to fend for ourselves with whatever conscience and courage we can muster. This, I think le Carre might agree, is what has happened to capitalism backed up militarism in the absence of an opponent.
Again Hoffman: reflect their times; great books define them. Great writers see through the conventional wisdom to show us a world we hadn’t imagined for ourselves. They take events or ideas and twist them just so; tweak them in such a way that we are compelled to see otherwise.
Newspaper like, uncanny prophetic language: you might think you are reading a slightly souped up newspaper: The Game. Yet stories are psychological quests with characters in search of a soul; the travelogue is a spiritual journey where the sights and sounds of the places gets us inside something essential in the scene which is important in the culture of the place.
Mereilles filmed Africa and its people
Its exposure of real exploitation: review on British Medical Journal
The art. In brief: opening of in-depth psychological presences for her characters, then an action-adventure quest, to want to return to his lady who is his homea the same time a spiritual journey of humbling atonement. See analysis in comment.
A forward moving plot of suspense as we first through Woodrow’s eyes and then on a sleuthing quest through Justin’s find out what happened. This is intertwined with suspense: will Justin get killed?
Interwoven with strong psychology both from points of view of each character controlling the section and the rich cast itself — some of whom were lopped off in the film. We didn’t have Lara Emrich in Canada for example; we never went to Italy; we didn’t get enough of Tessa’s cousin, Ham.
He can do a lot in a very few words: gift of concision and suggestion. One sentence in Chapter 19, Scene in playground with Birgit from Hippo. Much revealed through allegory too. The camera brings to vivid life
Finely sketched characters here: diplomats and their families (Coleridge Porters for example, actually well-meaning people thrust aside and then sent back), frustrated Scotland Yarders burdened with investigating a murder beyond their jurisdiction, corporate types, and rough-and-ready aid workers — all with their own objectives.
Film and book differ in conception of Tessa and Justin. Film doesn’t explain enough, and has a semi-justice ending. Film improves because camera can do so much and it uses juxtaposition and internet (which is like an inset-epistolary novel in the book) brilliantly for cross-stills.
Again Hoffman: GOOD BOOKS reflect their times; great books define them. Great writers see through the conventional wisdom to show us a world we hadn’t imagined for ourselves. They take events or ideas and twist them just so; tweak them in such a way that we are compelled to see otherwise.