The Constant Writer: Le Carre Spies a New Villain

By Hoffman, Tod | Queen's Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Constant Writer: Le Carre Spies a New Villain


Hoffman, Tod, Queen's Quarterly


John le Carre's most brilliant insight into human character have always come from taking a long hard look at human beings' capacity for duplicity and moral compromise -- and the shadowy world of the professional Cold Warrior was for decades a natural territory for this writer. But with Communism all but vanquished, le Carre is now fixing his sight on the kind of moral landscape being created by triumphant capitalism. His most recent work looks 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.

IN a world that generally gives itself quickly and easily to cynicism, a measure of optimism is reserved for the health care industry. Call it wishful thinking. 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. We take a leap of faith, believing that when we're ill -- at our weakest, most vulnerable -- we'll be rendered assistance in a spirit of altruism, in the tradition of Hippocrates; where the only issue is restoring our well being, where the dispensation of remedies is dictated by nothing save what constitutes the most effective treatment.

How unsettling it is, then, to have the pharmaceutical industry branded "the most secretive, duplicitous, mendacious, hypocritical bunch of corporate wide-boys it's been my dubious pleasure to encounter" by a character in John le Carre's latest chronicle of treachery and deceit, The Constant Gardener. Over the preceding decade, he's replaced his cast of spies with corporate villains, supplanting those who acted lamentably in the name of national security and ideology with those acting in the name of profit and position; the latter of whom are capable of far greater damage. He's done gun runners and drug dealers, whether under the guise of legitimate businessmen or without benefit of cover, the Russian mob, and investment bankers. No reader could be put out being asked to see any of these as amoral; it's pretty well taken as a matter of course (denials from the banking community notwithstanding). In a recent New York Times interview he affirmed "a fascination with what will happen to capitalism now that there' s no opponent."

Le Carre's spies, at least, had the virtue of irrelevance, even if they stubbornly refused to recognize it in themselves. For the most part, they manoeuvred and conspired against each other. Only occasionally did their plots spill over to engulf anyone who hadn't somehow agreed to play. The grand exception to this was The Tailor of Panama, in which the fabrications of a false intelligencer drew a military assault that engulfed Panama City -- this the result of under-employed, overimaginative spies too anxious to find threats where there were none. His new villains, however, prey on innocents as a matter of course. The globalization of the economy has opened a wealth of nefarious opportunities: for Western corporations poised to plunder, along with corrupt locals positioned to hinder or facilitate their efforts. The pursuit of profit -- the closest thing we now have to universal dogma -- goes untempered by better instinct, except for those few people unwilling to compromise for the sake of their own comfort.

It is all well and good to condemn corporate greed, but there's a more pervasive human trait at work here: selfishness. It's the instinct provoked by the fear that demands stock values increase because I need to ensure my retirement; or an immediate cure for the debilitating, possibly fatal, disease I risk contracting. And there is a 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. …

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