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shell pebble

Bad pharma: white saviour edition

The Constant Gardener: A Novel - John le Carre

I made rapid progress through this long book thanks to an intriguing plot, empathy with the protagonists, a serious socio-political backdrop and plenty of interesting peripheral characters.

Le Carre has been very careful to make Tessa and her husband Justin humble, passionate and self-effacing, since the role of White Saviour in Africa is, to say the least, problematic. Tessa is almost beyond reproach, and the book was morally comfortable for me with its predictably ignorant, self-interested colonial officials, dubiously spiritual white aid workers, insidiously amoral big pharma, naive-but-intelligent-and-incorruptible mixed-race admin staff, prophetic African wise women and so on, and even the pessimistic conclusion had me nodding sagely along, emotionally affected but unperturbed in my beliefs...

As critique perhaps this is unfair - there is enough discomfort in this sad book to make it a good and serious read, and doubtless its targets are broadly the right ones. But the message I took, and felt dissatisfied with, was that the well-meaning white person (that scourge of the Earth that is every irresponsible and ignorant one of us) is off the hook, and in any case helpless, in the face of corporate injustice in Africa.