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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