John le Carre’s “The Constant Gardener”

Yes, I’m on a bit of a John le Carre’ kick lately. And again, I found another one of his books that astounds me with its excellent writing and the power of the story. The constant gardener is Justin Quayle, a British diplomat in Kenya whose wife is murdered when she threatens to expose a pharmaceutical company’s lethal drug testing among poor Africans. Justin then embarks on a quest to find the truth. Yes, it is sad. Yes, it is based on a true story – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Medical_experimentation_in_Africa#Meningitis_testing_in_Kano.2C_Nigeria In fact, Mr. le Carre had this to say about whether his book was based on fact: “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”

Yes, I like John le Carre’s books. Yes, I think he’s a literary giant. There was a scene towards the end of the book that is a prelude to a key character meeting up with another key character (as you can see, I’m trying hard not to spoil the book for anyone intending to read it). So first, ask yourself: if you were writing a book and the plot called for two key characters to meet, how would you do it? Well, there are a number of ways, but most writers would simply have a note arrive in the mail with a time and a place for a rendezvous. Because obviously, the way the message is delivered and the circumstances and setting behind its delivery are of far less importance than the actual meeting itself. But in Mr. le Carre’s world this is not the case. The setting and circumstances are both extremely important because they reveal character.

And this is why he is a genius. Le Carre’ is not a great writer because his grammar and sentences are more beautiful, or because he works harder at his craft – though all that may be true. Le Carre’ is great because he sees the world through different eyes than the average writer. His people and scenes are truly three dimenional, and you just know deep down in your gut that what he is writing about is true even if you’ve never been a spy or a diplomat yourself. His writing is so rich in meaningful detail and the authentic thoughts of his characters that you are left with the impression that no one could have made this up.

Ernest Hemingway once said words to the effect that when he goes to describe a room, he first describes everything about it. Then when he edits, he removes all the details except the few salient ones that by themselves capture all the other points. Le Carre’s strikes me the same way. His descriptions are not just obligatory literary bus stops until he can get on with the real meat of the story, but the descriptions are as important as the action. They tell something important. And he does the same for his characters. Life is complex and profound and certainly not trivial to the people on life’s stage. Le Carre captures that. Further, you can tell how hard he must work at his craft. Some of his scenes are like a Da Vinci painting with layers and layers of color and detail that perhaps can only be admired by the very astute. Ha! Now in saying this, don’t think I consider myself to be one of the astute ones. But I am grateful that I can appreciate great writing when I see it.

If you want to know the story or the book’s background simply do a google search on the book title and steer your way to the book and movie’s Wikipedia sites.

Best regards,

Jim
Zurich

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John le Carre’s “A Delicate Truth”

I just finished reading John le Carre’s latest book A Delicate Truth. What a treat! Le Carre is 81 years old, and he’s not only written his best book in years, but in the process has fanned the coals of hope for my own flickering writing career. I have always admired Mr. le Carre’s writing style. Even in his books that I haven’t particularly enjoyed, the sheer quality of his writing always kept me reading on – intelligent, literary, and as deliciously multi-layered as a Strasbourg ice cream cone, i.e., from the little ice cream parlor on the left side of the street in front of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France.

But truth be told, I haven’t especially enjoyed the plot lines of his latest books, namely, Absolute Friends, The Mission Song, A Most Wanted Man, and Our Kind of Traitor. There were a variety of reasons: too depressing, too hopeless, too cynical, and in one of his books, Our Kind of Traitor, about the Russian Mafia, too much bad language, And sadly, at times even the writing seemed a little uneven – a little too obtuse. I had reached the conclusion that le Carre was past his prime, still more of a craftsman than all but a few of the current crop of thriller writers, but, dang it all, the man was getting old. And then comes along A Delicate Truth. Okay, le Carre does seem to have lately discovered one of our culture’s more popular swear words – which is annoying – but, I assume he feels this is how his characters would realistically speak – if so, I’d rather have the introspective, cultured, intellectual, well-read George Smiley back. But, oh well, these are the characters he chose to put in his book, and as the author he gets to decide what they say. I will add in his defense though: while the language jarred me in places, at least le Carre was writing an end-to-end realistic book. The authors that really irk me are the ones that have the bad language, thinking this makes the book realistic, while otherwise having the characters say and do the most unrealistic things in defiance of all the laws of man and nature. Le Carre is gritty, real, and authentic from first page to last. Even if you’ve never been set-up and warned-off by a member of the British foreign service, you can read the exchange between Kit and his two deceptively bland bureaucratic interrogators at the end of A Delicate Truth and know Yep, this is how it would be done.

Perhaps one reason the book was so good was that le Carre was back on firm ground again dealing with intrigue and machinations in the corridors of British power as the gears of government grind the innocent to dust. He even said in an interview that the two main characters, Trevor and Kit, were somewhat autobiographical. One interesting point I’ve noticed before is that le Carre despises how the Americans are conducting the war on terror. While I fully sympathize with his frustrations, and there is much to criticize, I wonder what he thinks the alternative is. What would the European heads of state have done? Most likely dithered. Or the Chinese? Think Tibet. Or the Russians? Think Checknya.

After I finished A Delicate Truth, I immediately downloaded le Carre’s The Constant Gardener about drug testing in Africa by global pharmaceuticals. But my wife warned me that it was very sad, so I’m putting off reading it for a while until I recharge emotionally. Instead I picked up a thriller by another very successful NYT best-selling writer. Wow! After reading le Carre it was like going back to ‘See Spot run. See Jane run with Spot.”

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