I didn't think that John le Carré's novel worked all that well. He is
the best English prose stylist of our generation and the first 100
pages or so, a wicked satire of life in a British embassy which he
knows intimately, were worthy of Jane Austen. I also share his
detestation for Tony Blair, for the dog-like attachment to Bush's
imperialism, especially the Iraq war, and for his government's sell-out
to the corporations. But The Constant Gardener unraveled when the story
became an African adventure burdened with a detailed exposé of the
pharmaceuticals industry's crimes. Le Carré can draw on his own
experience as a bureaucratic insider or latter-day critic, but he
remains an English writer with very limited knowledge of African lives
to support his sympathy for their plight.
I can understand why he was delighted by Fernando Meirelles' film of his novel. The Brazilian director shifted the focus of his story from the circumscribed world of English society in decline to Africa itself. This is today's Africa of city slums, AIDS and aid, luxury hotels and predatory elites. Only later are we exposed to the wide-open vistas and to Africans living on the land, where most perspectives on 'the dark continent' normally begin.
One scene near the end was particularly striking. The inhabitants of a remote settlement in the Southern Sudan are visited by a UN aid relief plane and by marauding bandits at more or less the same time. Horsemen with guns terrorize the people, torch the huts and carry off children along with stolen food supplies. The only alternative to this kind of vulnerability is the imprisoned security of one of the huge refugee camps nearby. Allowing for the fact that this episode would be more plausibly set in Darfur than in the war zone across Kenya's border, it evokes centuries of slave-hunting in Africa, but also comparisons from not so long ago elsewhere: memories of America's Wild West, the Japan of Seven Samurai and Sao Paulo raiders who once enslaved the Guarani in the director's homeland.
In contrast with the relentless pessimism of a film like Hubert Sauper's Darwin's Nightmare (2004), Meirelles's Africa is violent and violated, for sure, but its people are full of life and cultural resilience too. Brazil also has a brutal past and present, but Brazilians generate tremendous popular culture and optimism for the future. Perhaps before long Africa's cities will find ways of harnessing the vitality of their people to support more rewarding economic forms. The terms of world trade are changing and not in a direction favourable to Americans and Europeans. In the meantime we cling to the idea of a dying Africa reproduced in images like those of Sauper's nightmare.
Both the British protagonists die alone as a result of their quixotic struggle against corporate power. The uncomfortable lesson of this film is that Africans themselves will have to take on western imperialism in their own land. Their sympathizers may come from anywhere, but Meirelles's vision has an energy that Le Carré's original lacked.
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