The Constant Gardener

John le Carré

reviewed by Mira de Vries

Fiction is not my cup of tea. I simply don’t care what a person looked like, what he thought or felt, and whom he loved, least of all when that person never really existed. John le Carré is no doubt an excellent novelist, but his talents are as wasted on me as a symphony on someone who is hard of hearing. I wouldn’t have borrowed this book from the library had not another MeTZelf member recommended it, on grounds that in spite of its tame name, it deals with the corrupt practices of the pharmaceutical industry in Africa. As becomes novels, the moral theme is but a backdrop to the plot.

A different book on this subject, which thankfully says a lot more in a lot fewer pages, is Ivan Wolffers’s Drops Against Poverty, subtitled, Organon in the Third World. Organon is a pharmaceutical company in the south of The Netherlands. Unlike most pharmaceutical companies, which sprang up as side-kicks to the dye industry, Organon rose out of the efforts to make marketable products from slaughterhouse waste. Hormones are Organon’s specialty, although that didn’t prevent it from trying to cash in on the lucrative antidepressant market with its Johnny-come-lately tricyclic Remeron, audaciously marketed as “not an SSRI”. (See my report on the Triptych convention.) Remeron received bad press in the Dutch Medical Bulletin because Organon was caught misrepresenting it, hushing up unfavorable test results. Nonetheless, it continues to be sold, so much, even, that Organon now faces a class-action settlement in the USA, not for all the harm Remeron does to people who take it, but, of all things, for hogging the market.

In Drops Against Poverty, published in 1983, Wolffers describes how Organon marketed useless and dangerous hormones in poverty-stricken Third World countries as an antidote to malnourishment in children. This is no fiction. Wolffers backs up his claims with photographs of advertisements and documents. Unfortunately, Wolffers wrote this as well as all of his best books in Dutch, a language most of the world cannot read. So I am left returning you to Le Carré's novel.

Hiring thugs to murder opponents is going a bit far, but many of the pharmaceutical practices Le Carré weaves into the plot do really exist. They are not conjured up from the author’s imagination, but whispered into his ear by friends in the know. What Organon is accused of doing with Remeron, Le Carré has the fictional manufacturer ThreeBees doing with the fictional drug Dypraxa (inspired by Zyprexa?) for the treatment of tuberculosis. As this disease is making a comeback in wealthy first-world countries, a new (the author could have added, still patented) drug for it would be a huge money-earner. However, it is not yet approved for First World markets. In effect, starving people in Africa are used as guinea pigs. They lose their eyesight and even die from it, but the company insists it’s just a matter of adjusting the dose. The drug’s inventors turned whistleblowers are silenced with fine print in contracts and professional slur campaigns. No, they aren’t murdered. That honor is reserved for the beautiful heroine.

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