NAIROBI, KENYA — If you want to buy the new novel by bestselling author John Le Carre in Kenya, you'll need a secret Swahili password to get it.
"The Constant Gardener" is so controversial here that most bookshops are afraid to sell it. It takes the whispered phrase moja shamba, the Swahili words for "one garden" to finally produce it at one shop.
A clerk fishes the book from its hiding place in a cardboard box and passes it to the customer already wrapped in a brown paper bag. "We have to be quiet about it," the bookseller says.
Set in Kenya, Mr. Le Carre's novel paints an unflattering portrait of the country's leadership, and booksellers fear that by selling it, they will run afoul of the country's political elite.
While there is no official government ban on "The Constant Gardener" - nor have government figures spoken publicly about it - the manager at a bookshop in a Nairobi shopping mall says, "It's a banned book. Anyone who keeps it, if you get caught, you'll have a problem."
"It's too sensitive for us to stock," says another bookseller, smiling uncomfortably and ending the conversation abruptly.
When other booksellers are asked for the novel, they drop their voices, look around nervously and say they have no copies and no plans for getting any.
The booksellers' reluctance stems from the government's intolerance for freedom of expression, says Namwaya Otsieno, editor of Expression Today, a monthly paper published in Nairobi.
"The bookshops are highly compromised," he says. "They have been used to ensure that certain material deemed sensitive by the government doesn't reach Kenyans."
Some bookshops are owned by businesspeople with close links to the government, Mr. Otsieno says. "They would not want to stock anything that would jeopardize their relations with the people in power."
Le Carre's novel contains a few references to President Daniel arap Moi and Richard Leakey, the son of famous paleontologists who now heads Kenya's civil service. While Mr. Leakey is depicted as honorable, the comments about the man who has ruled Kenya for 23 years are far less complimentary.
The novel characterizes President Moi as being antagonistic toward gays and aid agencies. His government is called "terminally corrupt" by the character Sandy Woodward, a British diplomat. "Ministers and officials are diverting lorry-loads of food aid and medical supplies earmarked for starving refugees," Woodward says.
"The police routinely mishandle anybody unwise enough to bring these matters to public attention."
"Moi has his people everywhere, and they kill and steal to their hearts' content, and that means a lot of killing," says a Sudanese character called Sarah. She says Moi "couldn't manage a flea circus with the assistance of his entire Cabinet, even if there was money in it for him."
That's about it in the way of criticism of the Kenyan authorities in the 500-page novel. The depiction of the British Foreign Office is also unflattering.
Repeated calls to the Kenyan Information Ministry for comment on "The Constant Gardener" were not returned.
The book's plot revolves around the fictional murder of Tessa Quayle, a young, crusading, expatriate lawyer. When her body is found in the northern Turkana desert, suspicion falls on the man believed to be her lover, but it also emerges that she was on the trail of a pharmaceutical company's corrupt practices.
For booksellers, the Le Carre novel raises the specter of a recent lawsuit involving another publication.
Last year, Trade and Tourism Minister Nicholas Biwott successfully sued two Nairobi bookshops for libel. They were sued for stocking copies of "Dr. Ian West's Casebook," in which the pathologist author suggested Mr. Biwott was involved in the 1990 murder of Foreign Minister Robert Ouko. There's some question as to whether the bookstores can really pay the $67,000 judgment against them, but the lawsuit accomplished what it set out to do: get the book effectively banned from sale in Kenya.
With the Le Carre novel (reviewed in the Monitor on Dec. 7, 2000), the bookstores have resorted to self-censorship.
Le Carre hints in his author's note that Kenya is not a kind place for those who speak out. "With sadness, I have also decided not to name the people in Kenya who generously gave me their assistance," he writes. He mentions the death last August of John Kaiser, an American missionary who frequently criticized injustice and human rights abuses. Kaiser died of a gunshot wound to the head, but investigations have yet to point conclusively to either murder or suicide. "Accidents like that can happen again," Le Carre writes.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society