Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Constant Gardener

Having a few days off gave me the chance to crack a book or two; amongst several was John Le Carre's The Constant Gardener.

Le Carre is a really fine writer, and if he didn't limit himself to genre novels, typically espionage fiction, then I suspect he'd be regarded as one of the best British writers of the 20th century.

The Constant Gardner is largely set amongst the diplomatic community of Kenya, but the whole aid business gets a stern examination by the liberal yet very cynical Le Carre.

There was one passage that really impressed me. It goes a long way to explain the allure of aid work and why people do it. A British Indian lady who works at the embassy visits an aid centre called Loki:

Shrieks of delighted recognition pierced the evening air as aid workers from distant places rediscovered each other in different languages, embraced, touched faces and walked arm in arm. This should be my spiritual home, she thought wistfully. These are my rainbow people. Their classlessness, their racelessness, their zeal, their youth are mine. Sign up for Loki and tune in to saintliness! Bum around in aeroplanes, enjoy a romantic self-image and the adrenaline of danger! Get your sex out of a tap and nomadic life that keeps you clear of entanglements! No dreary office work and always a bit of grass to smoke along the way! Glory and boys when I come out of the field, money and more boys waiting for me on my R and R! Who needs more?

That's not bad for a white middle class writer approaching old age who (to my knowledge) has never worked for a second on humanitarian aid work. The observation and insight are impressive.



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