‘An artist is a bloke who can hold two fundamentally opposing views and still function: who dreamed that one up?’ Roy Bland asks George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974). ‘Scott Fitzgerald,’ Smiley replies. The aphorism, or at any rate Bland’s paraphrase, applies just as well to a double-agent. Or to any spy: Smiley and his kind perpetrate all sorts of illegal, immoral and anti-democratic acts in the name of democracy – theft, blackmail, extortion, kidnapping, murder. Their activities are defensible only on the grounds that the end, to paraphrase the 17th-century Jesuit theologian Hermann Busenbaum, justifies the means.

But it’s very easy to lose sight of the end, especially when it’s something as remote and abstract as winning the Cold War, or the ‘war on terror’. One of the things that’s so good about John le Carré’s Cold War thrillers is their moral murkiness, as they explore what happens when the people playing the game lose sight of its ultimate purpose, as they all inevitably do, and begin to play for the game’s own sake. Le Carré’s overripe language is suited to the decrepit world he describes. There are no goodies and baddies: or rather, there’s no correspondence between whether someone’s a goodie or a baddie and which side he’s on. ‘Don’t you think it’s time to recognise that there is as little worth on your side as there is on mine?’ Smiley asks Karla, the man who will become Moscow’s chief spymaster, in a prison in Delhi in the 1950s, when trying to persuade him to defect to the West.

Another paradox of Cold War espionage is that it wasn’t in the interests of spies on either side actually to win, because they’d be doing themselves out of a job. The two sides were engaged not so much in a secret conflict as in a secret collaboration, keeping the game going for the benefit of all the players. When the Cold War did at last come to an end – an outcome for which MI6 can take very little credit – old Russia hands weren’t the only ones whose livelihood was threatened: the fall of Communism also presented a problem for all the novelists who’d never needed to look too far beyond the Iron Curtain for a plot.

Le Carré eventually found a worthy subject in the depredations of multinational corporations and anti-capitalist resistance to them. Probably the most popular, and the most admired, of his post-Cold War novels is The Constant Gardener (2001), which pits an idealistic young Englishwoman, a Congolese-Belgian doctor and – eventually – the woman’s husband against a global pharmaceutical company and its corrupt accomplices in the British and Kenyan governments. The story has now been made into a film by Fernando Meirelles. Ralph Fiennes stars as Justin Quayle, a modest functionary at the British High Commission in Nairobi, whose young wife, Tessa, played by Rachel Weisz, is an embarrassment to the authorities and a heroine in Kibera, a shantytown of approximately a million people.

Tessa is murdered, along with her friend and colleague Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Koundé), just when they are about to expose the murderous practices of a pharmaceutical company, ThreeBees, which is testing a new drug, a potential cure for TB called Dypraxa, on Kenyan patients. The patients are dying, and ThreeBees are covering it up. After Tessa’s death, Justin retraces her steps, unmasking the conspiracy and putting his own life in jeopardy. He also learns that his suspicions of her infidelity were unfounded, and that she never loved, or slept with, anyone but him.

There’s no doubt who the goodies and baddies are here. Jeffrey Caine, the screenwriter, has no time for people who’ll say that ‘Big Pharma is too obvious a target.’ He’s right that there’s nothing wrong with obvious targets. And it’s certainly true that drug companies’ top priority is making money: they have a legal responsibility to their shareholders to maximise profits. You’d have to be very naive to think that they were especially interested in curing people: the best way for them to make money is by keeping ill people alive, much as it was in the spooks’ interest to keep the Cold War going. Barry Marshall and Robin Warren’s discovery of the bacterium Helicobacter pylori and its role in gastritis and peptic ulcer disease, for which they have just been awarded the Nobel Prize for Medicine, was disputed by the manufacturers of highly lucrative acid suppressants that relieved the symptoms of stomach ulcers, because it meant many patients could be treated with a simple course of antibiotics.

But the pharmaceutical industry is a more interesting, more morally ambiguous subject than, say, the arms trade – with which it’s explicitly compared in the film – because its side effects include treating disease, easing pain and preserving life, and no company would make much money from a drug that killed too many of the people who took it.

Dypraxa kills a lot of people, though just how many isn’t clear. ThreeBees are falsifying the evidence because it would be too expensive to send the drug back to the lab for modifications making it less lethal. This puzzles me for two reasons: if they’re going to fake the results anyway, why bother holding a secret trial at all; and if the drug is so lethal, it’ll never make a fortune as a miracle cure. The movie could ride out such logical flaws if it carried you along with it, but it doesn’t (other than during Bill Nighy’s all too brief show-stealing scenes as the venal high commissioner). The biggest problem is Tessa: I think she’s meant to be impassioned, principled, brave and irresistibly sexy; but I found her spoilt, sulky, self-righteous and irritating. Justin only gets to know her properly and really fall in love after she’s dead. This is probably meant to be romantic but it’s actually quite creepy. And it’s depressing that there’s still any currency in the idea that a woman’s moral integrity is bound up with her chastity.

The Constant Gardener is more conservative than it would like to think it is in other ways, too. The people killed by Dypraxa ‘agree’ to take the drug because otherwise ThreeBees will stop providing free medical care of any kind. In other words, they’re vulnerable to the pharmaceutical industry because they’re poor. The reasons for their poverty include crippling debt (Kenya ‘owes’ nearly $7 billion, 45 per cent of its GDP) and unjust global trade rules. More than heroic European martyrs like Tessa Quayle, what Africa needs is a fair deal.

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