The Book Club

Cynics Not Welcomed Here

Dear Sarah,

It is indeed invigorating to disagree with you for a change, but ouch: If my only choices are to love this book or to be a “more sensible” reader, I may have to come around. When I read your paean to the passages describing Justin’s surrender to Tessa’s (metaphorical) embrace, I felt like your prissy old auntie. (I don’t know what it may mean here that when I was 12, I and all the other girls in my wolf-pack were in love with the very same two boys, who were blandly good-looking and smelled not at all of onions and seemed like the only two boys in the universe it was appropriate to yearn for.)

Your reminder that reviewing is as much (or more) a matter of taste as of objective measurement by some critical standard is well taken. Still, I am mainly left wishing that the book were as good as your stout defense of it, which was so generous as to have me questioning the crabbiness of my basic nature. It’s an interesting question, where to come out on a book that is maybe a 4 on the scale of John le Carré’s work, but remains a 9 or 10 on the scale of, say, your average best-selling spy thriller. (Compared to Jeffrey Archer, it’s a 16.) Le Carré’s last book, Single & Single, posed similar problems. It was disappointing and also full of wonderful le Carré set pieces, including the opening chapter, which summarizes the incredulous last thoughts of a crooked banker who is about to be executed by his former clients. It’s hard to know how to say both parts with the right inflection: kind of a mess; wondrously superior to most of what’s out there, and absolutely worth reading.

I wouldn’t want to talk you into disliking this book, even if I could. But–at the risk of furthering my role as Least Romantic Reader–I will chime in with two final thoughts about why it disappointed me. The first is that the book is told only from the points of view of people not directly involved in the crimes at issue, or even in their discovery. We learn a lot about the rationalizations of the Western diplomats who turns a blind eye to corporate misdoing in Africa, but we don’t get a similar chance to know the people more directly involved–including Tessa and Arnold, but I mean especially the villains. Their facelessness, I think, is one of the things that made the book feel sort of simple-minded and polemical. Le Carré makes a nod in that direction with the character of Lorbeer, the doctor-imposter who works for the import company, but he (and his former lover, Dr. Lara Emrich) are at the cartoonier end of the le Carré spectrum.

I do agree it’s amazing that le Carré, in his 70s, would take up a new milieu and learn enough about it to write about it with passion. But you don’t get bonus points, in writing novels, for initiative. (In case we miss the point, there’s even a jacket photo of him “aboard a U.N. Buffalo supply plane over southern Sudan.” Meow.) And this brings me to my second point: Maybe one of the reasons I sound grumpy about The Constant Gardener is that the whole book had a slight edge of moral coercion to it. You have to believe in Tessa, constant reader, because she is such a Fine Person and besides is based (as we know from a recent le Carré essay in The New Yorker) on a real person, an aid worker who died in 1989 in Albania and is memorialized in the dedication of this book as “Yvette Pierpaoli/ who lived and died giving a damn.”

This is surely a lovely gesture. But it also made me feel admonished, chivvied; softened up for the next page–the epigraph–which is Robert Browning’s famous line, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” Thus, before I read the first page of the text itself, I felt I had been told that there was Serious Business Within, and no cynics need apply. It didn’t make me feel respectful; it made me feel pushed around, and nothing about le Carré’s exploration of his themes ever changed that feeling.

Which is a problem of art, entirely separate from the question of whether there is justice in le Carré’s charges. On that, I have little doubt. This morning the Washington Post published a follow-up to a long story it ran a few weeks ago about Pfizer’s controversial testing of a new antibiotic among Nigerian kids during a meningitis epidemic. (Among other things, they gave some kids oral doses rather than the more-effective intravenous method; they failed to disclose that it was an experiment; they didn’t warn the families of the joint damage that had turned up in animal tests; and U.S. use was eventually restricted because of liver damage and deaths.) The story of that local doctor, and what sort of pressure he was under, and what he got in exchange for his trickery, and what exact proportions of altruism and ambition went into his being the local Dr. Pfizer … Now that’s a story I want to read.

Anyway, it’s been great fun talking, as always. As for the grilled cheese: Usually I do it in the toaster oven (more of a low-fat thing than a convenience thing), but every once in a while I indulge by cooking them, unsensibly, in butter. Then I dip them in lots of ketchup, sort of the Peter L. of sandwich experiences.