by Ronan Bennett. 1997, Simon & Schuster
, 333 pages.
This novel is strange. It's not strange in a Joycean way, because it's very straightforward, but it's strange because it doesn't seem that Bennett knows what he wants to do with it. It is a story of a cynical novelist who travels to the Belgian Congo in 1959, just on the cusp of independence, to be with the woman he loves, a fiery, idealistic journalist. Anyone who knows the slightest bit about the transfer of power in the Congo from the Belgians to the Congolese knows that Patrice Lumumba, who was the first prime minister, was deposed in a coup ten weeks after taking power and a few months later killed (probably with the Americans' blessing). Lumumba has become a mythic figure in the history of anti-colonialism and African independence, and he haunts this book as well, although he's not in it that much.
Bennett gives us an interesting pair in James Gillespie and Inès Sabiani, the book's star-crossed lovers. James is older (by thirteen years) and much more jaded than Inès, who believes in completely biased journalism (she's a communist) while James tries to see all sides of a story. James finds his relationship threatened by the volatile situation in the Congo, which is bad and getting worse, but which offers Inès a chance to get involved in the way she loves and the way James hates. The book is really about how their affair disintegrates as James realizes that a simple love affair will never be as important to Inès as grand ideas on the world stage. She leaves him, but he can never stop loving her. That, of course, becomes a problem.
The difficulty with this book is that we know exactly where it's going, and while that's not always the point, as a thriller, it doesn't deliver, and as a love story, it's a bit lacking (for different reasons). The reviews compare it to, most commonly, a Graham Greene novel, but the crucial difference is that it's written with almost 40 years' hindsight, so while Greene's novels have a sense of not knowing exactly who's who and who's the bad guy, this novel can examine the legacy of the early independence movement and buy into the Lumumba fantasy more than a contemporary novel might (or might not, of course). We know how the Congo spiraled out of control fairly quickly (and this book was written in 1997, prior to the latest round of violence in the eastern part of the country), so Bennett can subtly indicate that the involvement of the United States (personified by Mark Stipe, a CIA agent who befriends Gillespie) was part of what caused the country to fall apart. It makes this slightly more a propaganda piece than a true thriller, because Bennett is guiding us toward an anti-Belgian, anti-American viewpoint based on the future history of the country, which a contemporary author might not do. (I'm not, I should stress, saying that Bennett believes this viewpoint or, if he does, that it's a bad viewpoint to have. It's apparently fairly clear that the CIA was, if not complicit, at least aware that Lumumba's enemies were going to slaughter him, so it's not as if writing with an anti-American tone is that offensive. I'm just pointing out that it's fairly obvious, and it's mostly because Bennett "knows how it all turns out.")
As a love story, it falls apart even more quickly, because the affair is falling apart at the beginning of the book, and Bennett never quite convinces us that James and Inès had the affair of the century, so its dissolution isn't as powerful (although Bennett's writing when describing the fractured affair is very good; the best in the book). Bennett doesn't quite earn
the tragedy of James and Inès, because we don't really believe that James could be so beguiled in the first place, so why is he so addicted to Inès? It's crucial that we believe it, because it's the hinge on which Gillespie's final actions rotate. James becomes much more pathetic as the book continues, because despite Inès telling him early in their relationship that she loved him, it's hard to believe from her actions. So when she breaks his heart, it feels like he should have gotten over it. Come on, Gillespie!
In the end, his love clashes with his lack of belief in, well, anything. If you've ever seen Casablanca
or The Third Man
, you know that the cynic grows a conscience and helps the person who needs his help. What's interesting is that Bennett makes it clear that James does this (yes, he can't escape the conscience!) not for noble reasons, like Rick Blaine, but because of his love for Inès - he's convinced that she'll come back to him if he doesn't cave to the authorities. The problem with this goes back to the unconvincing way Bennett gives us the affair. James is conflicted because he's unsure if Inès will come back to him or not, but we as the reader are sure she won't, because she's never given any reasons that James is anything else but a momentary stop on her way between one revolution and the next. Therefore, his sacrifice is meaningless, and his loss of cynicism, even for a moment, rings false. It's frustrating.
Bennett writes very well, and he really does a fine job creating these characters - perhaps too well, because then he can't fit these two people together. The politics of the book, in fact, are quite well done, as we get a good sense of what it was like in the Congo in 1959-60. I'm fascinated by the independence movement in Africa, and while Bennett changes the time frame so that it's not a very good historical document, he does a good job showing us the effect the independence movement had on both the whites and the natives, as for many Europeans, they considered Africa their home and couldn't imagine the violence that accompanied many independence movements. Bennett does a good job with that, and when that takes center stage, the book is often gripping.The Catastrophist
is a difficult book to recommend, because while there's a lot of good writing and some good ideas in the book, the central relationship is poorly done and therefore affects much of the rest of it. It's an easy book to read and it's an interesting look at a volatile period of history, but it also falls short in a lot of places. But it also shows why Krys and I call some incidents "Lumumba moments!"
Labels: History, Love story, Lumumba moment, Political thriller, What I've been reading