The Constant Gardener
John Le Carré
Hodder & Stoughton 2001
Tessa is the wife of a minor British diplomat in Nairobi, and an active campaigner for human rights. When she is murdered, her husband Justin rouses himself from his careful indifference and, unravelling the threads that led to her death, sets off in her footsteps. His journey will take him around the world, to a village retreat in Italy, a non-government organisation in Germany, an ostracised scientist in Canada, a food distribution area in southern Sudan, and in the end back to Kenya and the scene of Tessa's death.
In The Constant Gardener Le Carré offers a typically compelling account of a man on the run, chased by his "own" side (Intelligence and the Foreign Office) as well as by the bad guys (thugs working for a pharmaceutical company). He teases us with a complex, interlocking information web — who knows what and what can we deduce about their relationships from that? And he presents a characteristically unflattering portrait of the machinations of bureaucracy and bureaucrats. (As well as following Justin, we see inside the mind of his timeserving and lecherous colleague Sandy, an example not of overt evil — the thugs and the corporate executives who send them remain in the background — but of those who allow evil to happen by averting their eyes, refusing to rock the boat, and following orders rather than their conscience.)
The Constant Gardener is not, however, as taut as it could be, or as gripping. We follow Sandy's wife Gloria for a couple of chapters, for example, in a sub-plot that goes nowhere and could easily have been trimmed. And there's little ongoing suspense, with pretty much all the key facts apparent to the reader right from the beginning. There are also a few implausibilities — unlikely scene-setting dialogue in police interrogations, a fantastically powerful computer virus, and a protagonist unbelievably clueless about computers.
But The Constant Gardener does offer something new. Le Carré's earlier novels painted a bleak picture of the abuses and corruptions and betrayals of power; here that is augmented with a hard look at a specific issue — the abuse of power by pharmaceutical companies. The integration of this into the plot is occasionally awkward but mostly effective, touching on the testing of defective drugs in Third World countries, the corruption of governments and corporations, and the twisting of scientific research agendas. And while the ending of The Constant Gardener is dark in trademark Le Carré style, it has an unusually positive twist, ending with a hopeful defeat rather than a tainted victory, and with a call to political action.
Waiting for the Wild Beasts
Translated from the French by Frank Wynne
William Heinemann 2003
And so they proceed, describing Koyaga's "Naked People" and their relationship with the French, his mother and his father, who fought in the trenches of WWI, his prowess as a master hunter and his service in the French army in Indo-China and Algeria, his role in the achievement of independence by the "Republic of the Gulf", the coup and bloodletting that brought him to power, and the decades of his rule. They also tell the story of minister of information Macledio and his wanderings through the villages of West Africa. This is set in the framework of traditional magic, of shamans and marabouts and prophecies and magical items.
Koyaga's story is linked with the other dictators of Africa and their coups, murders, and excesses. This is only lightly fictionalised, with Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote a fairly obvious roman a clef — Koyaga is Gnassingbé Eyadema of Togo and the other leaders include Bokassa, Mobutu, Houphouet, and Haile Selassie — and some of the more fantastic episodes are all too real. The new threat which has prompted the rite of purification is democracy, now in vogue with Western governments which had previously supported anti-communist dictatorships.
As a study of African dictatorship, Waiting for the Wild Beasts to Vote is more revealing than most works of history. It manages this while working as a novel, a powerful evocation of myth and history that fits perfectly into the framework of its telling. Kourouma holds us spellbound while he teaches us the landscapes of West Africa, real and imagined.
Aké: The Years of Childhood
Arrow Books 1983
Wole Soyinka was a bright, curious child and his account of his early childhood in the town of Abeokuta in Western Nigeria is enchanting. He writes with his adult voice, but maintains the child's perspective and understanding throughout, the one exception a nostalgic contrasting of street-fronts then and now. Events are not always joyful — most obviously the harsh treatment of a mentally ill woman and the death of a sibling — but Aké is ebullient, full of the excitement of new discoveries and opportunities, a celebration of the wonder of childhood.
The narrative is episodic, following the patchiness of childhood memories. As well as domestic and school dramas, Soyinka's adventures include following a marching band to the next town when he was only five, taking part in a snake hunt, and being ritually scarified by his grandfather. There are a fascinating array of characters, though seen through the limited perception of the child: his father Essay, the primary school principal, his mother Wild Christian, the traditional warrior Paa Adatan, patrolling the town against the threat of Hitler, the unwanted but entertaining guest "Mayself", the idiosyncratic headmaster and his activist wife, and many others.
Some of the interest comes from the exotic setting, the Yoruba idioms and songs and Egba food, customs and ritual, and from the intertwining of the traditional and the modern. And the World War rages in the distance, while Soyinka's family becomes involved with the early Nigerian nationalist movement and, locally, the formation of a Women's Union. Seen from a child's perspective, none of this is the least bit didactic or laboured, but it makes for fascinating social history all the same.
Much of Aké reads like poetry, with vivid descriptions and often lyrical language, but it is never slow moving or at all difficult. Autobiography is not a genre I'm that keen on, but this is a definite exception.
*Books reviewed by Danny Yee