The Constant Gardener

ConstantGardenerbookcoverThe Constant Gardener, John Le Carré

Oftentimes before I write one of these essays I look at other reviews of the book to help muddle through my own thoughts. Nothing helps me to sharpen and clarify my opinions after all as much as disagreeing with someone else. I look at reviews especially when it’s a) been a while since I finished the book and I want to refresh my memory and/or b) if it’s a book that came out more than a few years ago as I like to be reminded of the climate when it was released.

When reading reviews of The Constant Gardener I noticed two main things. Firstly, that every reviewer had to write about The Constant Gardener in relation to other books by John Le Carré. I haven’t read anything else by Le Carré–although I have two other books of his on my to-be-read shelves–so I’m afraid it will have to stand on its own for me. Secondly, that the reviewers all commented on this new type of book that Le Carré had struck upon, a novel that explored the wrong doings of corporations (as opposed to the cold war spy novels of previous years), and one that was meant to motivate people to action. The reviews all wonder whether this sort of intrigue, a person against a corporation, a book that was meant to anger us about an industry, could possibly take off. It’s so strange to hear now, when fighting against an evil corporation is the standard in so many novels and movies. I had no idea Le Carré was such a trend setter.
On to the book itself, read with none of that background knowledge, it was a very engaging read. Justin Quayle, the constant gardener of the title, is a quintessentially British character, quiet, gentlemanly, courteous, and content as a foreign service officer drifting along for his career. The kind of man who can be easily overlooked, with the best description being that his politeness is easily mistaken for weakness. A character I recognize as someone to be admired from many of the British mysteries and suspense novels I’ve read. His beautiful young wife, Tessa Quayle, who many suspected was having one or more affairs, is brutally murdered at the start of the book, leading Justin to search for the real reason she was killed, and carry on her work.

The book takes on, in a rather roundabout and fictional way, pharmaceutical companies, corruption with both donor nations and developing nations, and the use of donations and people in the developing world as guinea pigs for new drugs. This is what Tessa and Dr. Arnold Bluhm–who the rumor mill said she was sleeping with–had been tracking, with Tessa trying to find a way to bring attention to their bad works within the British government, naively insisting on working within the institutions.

And this was my biggest issue with the novel. Tessa is portrayed throughout as an activist, highly moral, tenacious, and brilliant (and rich and gorgeous and so on and so forth. She is the point of the whole novel and the plot point for Justin to start his part of the story, after all.) She is forward thinking encrypting her communications, sending additional letters to family for others to find, etc. And yet, the report that would expose these bad deeds, that Justin is trying to piece together, is never found. I just found it so difficult to believe that this brilliant lawyer, knowing that she’s fighting an amoral corporation with many resources and no scruples about silencing critics, wouldn’t have created a fail safe and sent the report off somewhere. Left a key for Justin to a safe deposit box? Mailed copies to her brother? Anything. It didn’t ring true to me. Apologies for nitpicking, but I’m afraid it’s what I do.

The second part that I thought didn’t quite work was this apparently brand new notion of a novel that would motivate people to future activism. Le Carré was obviously sincere about this, and wrote a follow up bit that’s in the book about how all of these pieces are true in their own way, and that these bad acts are happening around the world and primarily in Africa. However, the companies and occurrences were too generic in the book for me to feel that I could use them as a jumping off point, the activist groups fictionalized as well. There needed to be a bit more docu- to the -fiction for it to really work as the rallying call he intended.

As a book, though, I found it compelling-despite my issue with the MacGuffin at the center–and a suspenseful novel. Le Carré can craft a page turner, that is for sure, even if it’s a page turner far more subtle than other suspense or spy novels we might be used to. And I enjoyed the characters more than I thought. For anyone whose seen the movie, don’t let it discourage you. The relationships as written in the book made far more sense, Justin was more compelling, the various characters on the periphery were more rounded and intriguing, and overall I wanted to keep reading. Le Carré is not an optimistic man, I fear, and this book was no exception, and despite his novel decrying the neo-colonialism of capitalism and humanitarianism, there’s still more than a whiff of old colonial feeling in the book, leading to an air of sadness over the whole affair. It kept me thinking about the book well after I’d finished, though, which I always take as a good sign. I look forward to finishing the others on my to be read shelf and taking on some of his classics.

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The City and the Stars

the city and the starsThe City and the Stars, Arthur C. Clarke

Arthur C. Clarke is the best writer of the “Big Three” sci-fi authors, speaking in terms of the craft of writing. Better than Asimov, far better than Heinlein. He and Bradbury are probably the best of the classics. Clarke’s interesting to read as well, though, because he foresees societies that really are different than our own, and, setting him apart from others, his future societies are often relatively free of conflict. His books are rarely violent, and barely any conflict. They slowly move forward with people more or less behaving decently, and even most of those who don’t still trying to do the right thing. They’re carried forward almost entirely by the writing and new ideas. One almost gets the sense he finds classic story elements of violence, distrust, and other conflict get in the way of the ideas he wants to pursue, with how quickly he rushes in in each book to explain, “Those silly problems of jealousy and anger weren’t a problem anymore! And no one would consider hurting someone. Now, on to the real meat of the story.”

That being said, if you read too many of his books in a short period of time they can start to get a bit tedious. The first time you read a book where nothing much happens and humans have become exceptionally advanced and everyone more or less gets along it’s rather refreshing, and it seems like such a brave choice from the author. After three or four you kind of want something to happen.

The City and the Stars is much farther in the future than most of Clarke’s books, an incomprehensible one billion years in the future. The main character, Alvin, lives in the self-contained city of Diaspar, where all decisions have been outsourced to artificial intelligence and humans study, produce art, wander the city, talk with one another, and whatever else they would like to do, with no concern for money or need until they decide they’d like to have their intelligence returned to the central computer and returned at a later date. Interesting to consider the way science fiction authors of the past considered automation–Clarke would have been all for a universal basic income and incredibly productive robots. I believe Asimov and many old “what does the future hold!” Disney cartoons thought that was the goal, as well.

The artificial intelligence for Diaspar controls everything, including the mix of personalities in the city, and every now and then they throw in a “unique” such as Alvin, someone who is a brand new personality mix rather than an old one retrieved from the archives. As a “unique” Alvin isn’t terrified of leaving the city of Diaspar, which all others are afraid to do. No one ever travels outside the city walls. He does, finding a new city, Lys, which limited their use of robots and instead perfected the human mind and telepathy. Two paths for humanity. There’s more that comes after explaining why most humans left earth, why some stayed behind and created the only two cities left on earth, Diaspar and Lys, and something about a galactic intelligence-another Clarke staple-but honestly the first half of the book was the most interesting.

I enjoy Clarke. I am heartened by the obvious hope he has for humanity, and it’s rather curious to read Utopian rather than dystopian science fiction these days. His writing, as I mentioned, really is excellent. I find myself hoping he’s right that we can make a good future for ourselves. It usually puts me in a better mood. Plus, this is also a fairly slim volume, so it was a quick read. For future reading, though, I just think every now and then I need some action.

Zeitoun

220px-ZeitounZeitoun, Dave Eggers

Imagine, if you will, a time when the threat of terror attacks has led to a drastic curtailing of civil liberties, and discrimination and oppression of Muslims. When it comes to immigrants, Muslims, and other people of color, law enforcement seems to operate with impunity. And many key government appointments seem to be held by staggeringly incompetent people with no actual qualifications. In fact, many historians are saying that the current president will go down as possibly the worst in history.

Yes, 2005 was a different time. A time many of us miss now, but I think that’s because we’ve forgotten how frightening it really was. Zeitoun is a good reminder.

Zeitoun, by Dave Eggers, takes place in New Orleans right before and in the weeks after Hurricane Katrina. The title character, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, is a Syrian-American immigrant, a Muslim, and a builder and general contractor in New Orleans. When Katrina is coming, while his wife evacuates with the kids, he stays behind to watch over the property. He and some friends spend the days after the hurricane boating around the streets, helping to rescue neighbors, deliver water and supplies, and help abandoned pets. Amazingly, when help finally comes, he and his friends are arrested by the National Guard and held for 23 days without notifying his family, or giving him access to a lawyer.

This is a narrative non-fiction, along the lines of What is the What, and I find that Eggers is particularly adept at this. I know it’s popular to dislike him-partly because he gets all prickly about criticism-but he is a talented writer and story teller. And his particular style does well in highlighting huge, intimidating problems in a manageable way, relating to one individual, and what abstract concepts-like civil liberties-or major news stories-like the civil war in Sudan-actually mean.

I found Zeitoun fascinating. I was and am a very politically involved, politically aware person but had actually not heard about the renditions in New Orleans after Katrina, or that this was used in another front to push what is allowable in the fight against terrorism. But wrapped up in the horror of the lack of planning pre-hurricane, the lack of effective response, the fact that a white suburb and their police force blocked black residents from entering, and law enforcement shot people looking for food, apparently the government did find time to send in the National Guard to look for terrorist. The response to Katrina was even worse than many of us knew.

I’m incredibly glad that I read this book, and was reminded of how things were, and which fights under the Trump administration are new, and which are ones that we never finished during and after Bush. It may seem that this is a book that would only be timely for a little while, and perhaps in popular view it is, but I always find it useful to read topical books much later, or popular fiction from decades ago, or historical books that go into the daily life rather than major events, to remember what we so easily forget from our history. It’s important that we don’t let such events fade into the background. Partly for when it seems we’re in a more dangerous time, so we can look back and remember that politicians and newspapers always say we’re in the most dangerous time. And partly so that we can be on the look out for real dangers—like the destruction of civil liberties—and know the warning signs and how to fight back. And so we remember what was tried before and failed, and don’t get suckered by it again. (Those last two are things that the U.S. in particular needs to work on.)

I think that in writing this review I need to also explore the controversy surrounding the book. In short, in the two years after Zeitoun was published, Abdulrahman Zeitoun and his wife, Kathy Zeitoun, separated, with his wife citing abusive behavior. He was eventually arrested for plotting to have his wife and her son killed. This is, obviously, horrific behavior. And from what I was able to tell, Eggers refuses to seriously address these issues since writing the book. However, I do not think that they undermine the book, and, from what I can tell, other than suggesting that Zeitoun may not have been the “perfect victim” of the police state, do not dispute the main facts of the book: that he stayed behind in New Orleans, that he and his friends were helping others in the days after the hurricane, and that he was eventually arrested on suspicion of being a terrorist and held for 23 days with no access to a lawyer or his family.

Kathy Zeitoun has said that the presentation of their relationship was true at the time the book was written, while at the same time saying there had always been some violence. She also said that Zeitoun became more violent and radical in his Islam after his detention. It is not unbelievable that someone who had been through such an ordeal may have seen their behavior altered dramatically. I am not defending his violence at all or trying to deny or excuse attempted murder. Only that it can be the case that the presentation in the book was mostly true, and that Zeitoun, while doing good things for others after Katrina, is not actually a great person and only deteriorated after his detention.

If that ruins the concept of the book for some people, I understand, and I didn’t know about it until after I finished the book and started looking up other reviews. If I’d known it before, it would undoubtedly have colored my opinions when reading it. However, I still recommend the book for the reasons I listed. It’s an engaging and highly readable story, and it covers a topic that we should all remember. A major American city was destroyed because of incompetence, the citizens continued to suffer because incompetence was compounded by racism, and in the midst of this we found time and resources to seek out and arrest Muslims we suspected of sneaking into a flooded city. As we find ourselves again being told to fear the others and accept leaders who know nothing of governing, told, indeed, that one of the most competent and inspiring presidents we’ve had was destroying the country simply by being other, it seems a very timely read indeed.

Americanah

AmericanahAmericanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

This critically acclaimed novel, the third by Nigerian born author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, covers the life of two Nigerians and their very different immigration stories.  The main protagonist, Ifemelu, is accepted to an American university and after school stays in the country for work.  Her boyfriend from secondary school, Obinze, who had also wanted to seek a new life outside of Nigeria, is denied a visa and illegally enters the United Kingdom.  He is eventually deported and becomes a successful and wealthy real estate developer in Nigeria, while Ifemelu finds success as a writer and speaker on racial issues before returning to Nigeria as well.  Throughout this story the book examines what black even means, what it means for a person to be black, the differences between being an African American and an African in America, and the story of immigrants seeking more choices and a chance for more out of life.

Despite this book’s amazing reception and numerous awards, I was underwhelmed.  I didn’t love this novel as a novel.  That’s not to say it’s all bad.  First, let me say what does work.  Adachie is a trenchant observer of cultures, and in my opinion the best parts of the book were the excerpts from the fictional blog, “Raceteenth or Various Observations About American Blacks (Those Formerly Known as Negroes) by a Non-American Black.”  The blog points out the strangeness of coming from a culture where everyone is different shades of black, and therefore “blackness” doesn’t exist, to the United States.  It talks about the politics of hair.  It examines the way African cultures look at immigrants to the United States.  I could have happily read just that part of the book.

I also found the book interesting in the way I always find it interesting to read about different cultures and prose from different perspectives.  Fiction can highlight lived experiences in a culture in a way that a thousand news reports and scholarly papers never can.  At the time I read this book I was part of a campaign working on expanding electricity access in African nations. I’d read so very, very many reports on energy access.  But it’s importance was brought home to me when Ifemelu returns to Nigeria and one of the measures of someone’s success and wealth is the size of their generator.  The early part of the novel also takes part during the tail end of Nigeria’s time as a dictatorship.  I’ve previously mentioned my interest in reading about how normal life goes on under extreme and adverse circumstances, so this part of the book was right up my alley.

Now for what didn’t work.  The story was fine, but I never quite connected with any of the characters, and many of the side characters felt flat.  In particular Ifemelu’s boyfriend at the beginning of the book, Blaine, seemed two dimensional.  There was never anything in the book to show why the two of them were together, or to even make it seem that Ifemelu liked him at all.  Even Obinze, the main love interest in the book, didn’t seem to have any real reason to be a love interest.  It’s odd to say that characters in a book lacked chemistry, but they lacked chemistry.  I believed that they were together, but there was nothing in the story to demonstrate that they really loved each other or why.  We’re also told that Blaine’s sister is an imposing figure who is hostile to Ifemelu and vice versa, but again, if we weren’t told this was the case I don’t think I would surmise it from the text.

All in all, there’s a lot to this book, and a lot I should have loved.  But instead it started to be a drag to read towards the end since no one had pulled me in.  I’d be interested in reading a short story by Adachie, since those often don’t depend as much on characters, or nonfiction, but I was underwhelmed by the novel parts of this novel.