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Tuesday, 6 March, 2001, 17:59 GMT
Kenya boycotts Le Carre novel
London bookshop
Andrew Harding got his copy sent from London
By Andrew Harding in Nairobi

The latest thriller by the British writer John Le Carre is - like so many of the veteran author's books - proving to be a bestseller around the world.

John Le Carre
Le Carre's novel has caused waves
But it is not doing well in Kenya, where the book is set.

Booksellers have been alarmed by the negative image of their country portrayed in the story by the veteran spy novelist.

Many fear they might be punished for stocking the work by the authorities - who are not painted in the best light.


I visited a Nairobi bookshop, feeling a bit like an undercover agent. I am not allowed to tell you which bookshop, and I am not allowed to reveal the name of the manager.

He agreed to talk in suitably cloak and dagger fashion about the book, The Constant Gardener - which I cannot seem to find anywhere in Kenya.

Me: Are you not stocking it?
Manager: No, no we're not.
Me: Why not?
Manager: Really can't take the risk, the risk of the repercussions. The possibility of getting sued by the government or getting shot down for that matter.
Me: But it's a work of fiction?
Manager: If a book upsets certain people and they feel they have been wronged by it, we really do not have the strength, the system is not geared to challenging ... anything like that.
Me: You mean the courts wouldn't be impartial?
Manager: Well I ... (laughter)

A nervous laugh if ever I heard one. And it was much the same story in a couple of other shops.

Luckily I got my own copy of the book sent out of London. It is a fictional story about an evil international drugs company, but it is set firmly in real-life modern Kenya, and it is not very polite about the authorities here.

For example, on page 52: "The government is terminally corrupt, the country is bankrupt and there's not a corner of it that isn't falling apart from fraud, incompetence and neglect."

What is reflected here is pure lies

Peter Kimanthi, police spokesman
John Githongo, who runs the Kenyan branch of Transparency International, an organisation dedicated to fighting corruption, has not been able to find John Le Carre's book in Kenya either.

"It's self-censorship as a result of fear on the part of these bookshops," he said. "Because they've had to pay out huge sums of money to one of our cabinet ministers who took them to court for stocking books which he said defamed him.

"There's a feeling perhaps that the fiction in this particular book might mirror the truth in Kenya perhaps a little bit too closely."

Police torture?

It was last August that a Kenyan minister sued two shops for selling another British book - a work of non-fiction which appeared to implicate the minister in a gruesome murder.

My nervous contact in the book world winced at the memory.

"I'm fairly convinced that if the book shops had been given a chance to withdraw those books, they would have done it in a second," he said.

"I don't think there's anybody in the country who would ever want to put themselves in a situation where they take on the government or influential people over an issue of free speech."

That is not strictly true actually. There are plenty of feisty opposition politicians here, and a lot of critical articles in the press.

I went to show my copy of the book to Kenya's police spokesman, Peter Kimanthi. The book, which he said he had not seen before, is pretty rude about the police and talks about the use of water torture.

"It bothers me just as far as they're saying it and sending a message to the world telling them how bad Kenya is," said Mr Kimanthi. "But I'm not worried because that is not the situation.

"What is reflected here is pure lies."

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See also:

10 Jan 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Kenya
12 Jan 01 | Africa
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